Franklin County doctor is a healer on wheels

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ROCKY MOUNT, Va. (AP) — The doctor raided the freezer, shoveling ice into a trash bag with his hands. The rescue squad had detected a pulse, reviving a man in cardiac arrest in his home near Smith Mountain Lake.

Understandably, the man's wife was a little confused by the tactics of this Franklin County rescue squad, the doctor remembers. And now the doctor was crowding the ice around her husband's neck and throat to induce hypothermia, instead of rushing him to the hospital.

But luckily, the doctor's wife was there also. She was huddling with the ailing man's wife, explaining each step of the process that would save his life.

Charles Lane, the 55-year-old doctor who oversees Franklin County's EMS operations, and Sherry Lane, a nurse and paramedic, had responded as they usually do when such an emergency comes to their attention, often through the radio they keep running in their home. They are volunteers by definition and lifestyle — though Charles Lane is a particularly prominent one — whose life and work have blurred into a pulsating mission to rescue people in need.

"You're trying to establish order where there is chaos," Charles Lane said, calmly and softly thinking aloud, through a situation where he might be needed. "When you've taken your brand new Kia and flipped a couple times off Virginia 122, and you're injured and you look at your new car and it's smashed and your new girlfriend is injured with you, your world order has just changed very quickly.

"So, basically that's the job, to go back and intervene now and try to restore order to your world. I think myself and my wife, and people who are like us, we have sort of a rescue character."

Charles Lane rode in his first ambulance in 1978, having volunteered as a medic near his childhood home in eastern North Carolina, in what he calls the golden days of rescue squads.

This was, in essence, the beginning of the emergency medicine era. The notion that dialing three numbers on a telephone produced an ambulance within a few minutes was a new one in most areas, and the training of the folks on board — bearing a gleaming new designation, emergency medical technicians — was still the subject of consternation.

"That was controversial back in the early '70s when it first came out. Instead of just having advanced Red Cross training and jumping in the funeral home's hearse to go pick up patients that were injured, we transitioned to this more professionalized system called EMS," Lane said. "And along with it came this requirement that you take a class called EMT."

Lane was hooked, dropping his post-college plans to become a clinical psychologist and instead pursuing a doctorate in emergency medicine. He took a job traveling around the region with a company that staffed emergency rooms, and soon met Sherry, who was a nurse in Roanoke.

They made Franklin County home and, 11 years ago, he became the director of emergency services at Carilion Franklin Memorial Hospital in Rocky Mount.

Neither he nor Sherry could shake the rescue mentality, though, and they continued as volunteer EMS providers. They do so in addition to their day jobs and occasionally in the middle of family events.

"Our kids, they really don't entirely understand, but they're used to it," he said. "They'll come to visit and something big will happen and we'll just bail out on them."

They found kindred spirits in Newfoundlands, becoming avid owners of the giant dogs famous for their water rescue prowess.

A relative of one of the couple's four dogs even brought a change to the county's public safety practices when it survived a fire in Connecticut in 2013. While the dog was in Franklin County recuperating, the Invisible Fence brand donated pet oxygen masks so Franklin County rescue workers can also assist animals after house fires.

Charles Lane became the operational medical director role for the county's emergency department — a volunteer arrangement where emergency workers, volunteer and paid, do their work under his authority. He is also now one of the county's medical examiners.

He still personally responds to high-pressure calls or situations where he thinks the crews may appreciate his help, often with Sherry Lane alongside. Over his decade in the role, his exploits have included the resuscitation of one local judge after a car crash and the treatment of another judge who was suffering from a rapidly deteriorating condition.

His hands-on approach and constant push for cutting-edge techniques, exceptional even among volunteer-oriented doctors, according to local officials, also brought him regional influence. Six years ago, he became the Western Virginia EMS Council regional medical director, giving him influence over nearly 20 localities from Alleghany County to Danville.

"You don't find very many who go to quite the lengths that he does," said Robert Logan, the regional council's executive director.

Although the emergency medicine landscape, and Lane's view of it, has changed dramatically, the training requirements are once again a source of controversy.

While volunteering as a paramedic was popular in the 1970s — chicks dug the rescue squad, according to Lane — many localities now struggle with staffing.

It's a national phenomenon, and Lane is concerned about Southwest Virginia, especially areas like Floyd and Henry counties, where the main source of potential volunteers — the 16-to-34 age bracket — is drying up.

"Within Franklin County and within Western Virginia, you are one or two people away, at many agencies, from collapse," he said. "And it's a very precarious situation."

But he has been a vocal opponent of a bill sponsored by Del. Kathy Byron, R-Campbell County, that would have cut the number of training hours required by roughly half. Currently EMT certification requires 154 hours of training, while emergency medical provider certification requires 80. The bill would have set those numbers to 80 and 40, respectively.

Lane sent Byron — who represents part of Franklin County — a letter about the bill, but never received a response. Still, Logan said his influence on the state level added to the medical community's push against the idea, which was designed to increase volunteer numbers.

Lane said the bill, which has been tabled for the year, failed to ask what was best for patients. And had it passed, he said, he would have blocked Franklin County volunteers who didn't meet current standards from responding to calls.

"I wouldn't let them practice in my system — because I think it's such a bad move and such a dangerous move — as an EMT at one of my agencies until they did a bridge course and got them up," Lane said. "That's kind of like my ultimate card I can throw — my trump card."

Even when he speaks of this rather defiant potential move, Lane is subdued, and at other times, when some of his reasoning is apparent — formed in living rooms and on the scenes of horrific car crashes — his voice seems muffled from the inside by recollections of what he calls sacred moments.

"People invite you into their lives in ways that, even after doing it a long time, is a little unnerving - both pre-hospital and in the ER," he said. "People reveal things to you that maybe no one else in the world knows about them. You're given the opportunity to engage and interact with people in a very unusual way, and you've got to do it quickly."

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Information from: The Roanoke Times, http://www.roanoke.com

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