Even before there were real ambulances locally, Brenda Mack was comforting patients on their way to the hospital. She continued to do so for 32 years until she retired recently from McDuffie County Emergency Medical Services.
"I've always loved providing patient care to the public," Mrs. Mack said. "I always tried to do my best. That was my life. ... Helping others was my passion."
Mrs. Mack learned her passion in the back of her father's hearse, which "Big John" Crawford used to transport patients to the hospital in the '60s and early '70s before McDuffie County had ambulances. Mr. Crawford ran Crawford Funeral Home.
"I used to ride along with him. I would sit back there with the patient and comfort them," she said. "My father brought me up to be friendly to all and to work with the public, and we worked with funerals. It just took to me."
Growing up in the business, Mrs. Mack saw the need for ambulances, and worked with local governing officials to start an ambulance service in McDuffie County. So, it was only natural for her to enroll in the Emergency Medical Technician course at Augusta Tech so she would qualify to work with the service when it started. Back then, the course was taught in the basement of McDuffie County Hospital as a satellite program. Mrs. Mack remembers it was taught by Grover Tuten, who now is the coroner of Richmond County.
Although she did well in the course, there was one problem -- she wasn't old enough to be certified. Mrs. Mack took the course as a 17-year-old.
"I turned 18 in February, then took the boards a few months later just in time for the ambulance service to begin here in September of that year," she said. "We got things rolling in 1977, and we have come a long way since then."
In the early days, Mrs. Mack said the service basically was "load and go." But as technology advanced, so did medical care to patients on the road. And Mrs. Mack advanced along with the times. She went on to become certified as a paramedic, which she said took her from "basic first aid" to "incubating, cardiac defibrillators, ventilators and giving medications."
"I was able to offer better patient care. I just wanted to do a lot more for my patients, especially when we were far out in the country. I wanted to be able to give them pain relief until we reached the hospital," she said.
In all those years, Mrs. Mack has seen many happy times -- she's delivered nine babies "on the road, I'm talking interstate deliveries" -- as well as horrible times -- "we worked 72 hours straight during (a string of murders in early 1980s)."
"When you hear that baby cry, it's something you never forget. It's a wonderful feeling. It's not the cleanest situation, but it's wonderful," she said. "It's a wonderful feeling knowing that I'm able to do what's necessary at the moment it is needed."
There also were unexpected times that no one wants to face -- arriving at a serious car accident and recognizing the victim.
"It's very difficult sometimes when I had to deal with a person I'm very fond of, or even was related to," Mrs. Mack admitted. "I just had to force myself to focus on the moment and get the job done. Then, break down and cry afterwards."
Helping others is not Mrs. Mack's passion alone. Her husband, Rhusha, is a full-time firefighter/first responder with Martinez-Columbia Fire/Rescue Service, a part-time EMT with McDuffie County EMS and the full-time coroner of McDuffie County.
"He is my love," she said. "I love him. He's a good family man. Family is his first priority."
Although she wasn't quite ready, Mrs. Mack was forced into retirement by a knee injury that required surgery last summer. She said her husband faithfully assisted her with the physical therapy after the surgery, but she hasn't fully recovered.
"With me not being able to maneuver like I once did, made me slower, not able to climb in and out of the ambulance, it hindered my patient care," Mrs. Mack said. "I saw that I was not able to perform at 100 percent, so I resigned my post in October."
A retirement party was held at McDuffie Regional Medical Center a few weeks ago.
"Brenda's service has been a God-send to this county and the surrounding counties," hospital CEO Doug Keir said. "She is an integral part of the ambulance service. We hate to see her go, but we wish her the best in her retirement. There will always be a place here for her if she is able to come back."
Mrs. Mack said she hopes to return on a part-time basis. If her knee doesn't get better, she'd like to work in the emergency medical field, maybe in education programs or volunteering in the emergency room.
But for now, she plans to make up for lost time with her family. The Macks have a daughter, Jakayla, who is 12. Since her retirement, Mrs. Mack has enjoyed being a full-time mother.
"I've been able to go to school functions, band concerts, softball games," she said. "There's a lot I've missed out on over the years. I'm going to make up for it, now."