Load and go: When funeral homes operated the ambulance service 2010.10.13

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

rescue_truck.jpgBy DAVID GREEN

Load and go.

That’s what Dick Buehrer remembers as the motto of Fayette’s Eagle Funeral Home ambulance service when he assisted Bob Eagle back in the 1960s.

“You got them bandaged and loaded and you got them to the hospital,” said Gary Rice, another ambulance helper.

First aid and advanced first aid certification required about 30 hours of training, Dick said, adding that, “Things are a whole lot different now.”

In Morenci, Chris Fink worked with his father, Charles, at Fink Funeral Home, and they knew their first aid knowledge had its limits.

“Our job wasn’t to treat them on the scene,” he said. That came years later when EMTs learned advanced techniques that could be used in the field.

Chris remembers a lot of improvising, such as carrying a person downstairs in a chair.

“A magazine works good for a splint,” he said. “People always had a Life magazine or a Saturday Evening Post lying around.”

Charles Fink also had a couple of people around town that he would call for assistance, before Chris joined the business.

“Harvey Schoonover and Pinky LaNew helped, and I did, too,” said Charlie’s wife Wilma. “I never went on emergency runs, but I went along to transfer patients.”

Stop the bleeding and tie a splint, if needed, she said—those were the basics of the ambulance crew. Sometimes in the rush of the response things got a little mixed up.

“I remember one time Charlie put the splint on the wrong leg,” said Wilma.

Not a money-maker

All funeral homes operated ambulance services in the past, Wilma recalls, and it certainly wasn’t done as a money-making venture, at least not directly.

“We only got about $10 to go to Ann Arbor,” she said. “It was more of an advertisement for the funeral home.”

If Fink Funeral Home got the ambulance run instead of Ackland Funeral Home, then Fink was likely to get the funeral business.

“I remember one Sunday Charlie went to Ann Arbor four times,” Wilma said. “He’d just about had it.”

And when the Palm Sunday tornado struck in 1965, Charlie was busy all night transporting victims to hospitals.

Chris said the rate for driving to Ann Arbor reached $25 before the service ended, with trips to Adrian paying $7 to $10.

But that doesn’t mean everyone paid. In the final year of service, he managed to collect on 50 percent of the runs made—and that stood as the best collection rate ever.

From the limited funds collected, the funeral home director paid his volunteer staff, bought supplies and covered maintenance—both on the vehicle and for chores such as washing sheets.

Looking for helpers

For Morenci’s service, patients with the more severe illnesses and accident victims with the worst injuries were transported to Ann Arbor. They were often taken to Morenci Area Hospital first for stabilization. Charlie would wait at the hospital, then load them up and take off again.

Sometimes the trips were much longer than Ann Arbor.

“Bob Eagle called me one night and wondered if I wanted to make a trip to Chicago,” Dick Buehrer said. “It was a rather long night.”

Bob wasn’t pushy about getting help.

“He’d call to see if you were available,” Dick said. “If you couldn’t go, he’d say that it was all right and he would find someone else.”

That someone might be Mick Schaffner, who started helping with ambulance calls in the late 1950s.

“When he needed help, he’d give me a ring,” Mick recalls. “Either I’d meet him at the funeral home or he’d pick me up if he was going in that area.”

“You’d get into all kinds of situations—wrecks, everything. You’d never know what it was going to be.”

Gary Rice was on Bob’s list of helpers and he would sometimes receive a phone call in the middle of the night to help pick up a body.

Gary remembers when his service started. He received a call from another helper, Leonard Morr, who wanted assistance retrieving a body from the hospital. That went all right, but when they got back to the funeral home, Gary had his introduction to the business.

Bob asked Gary to go into the next room and get some sheets and pillow cases.

“It was the first time I’d gone into the room and there was a dead lady lying there. I went back out and told Bob, ‘If you want those sheets and pillowcases, you get them yourself.’”

“Bob told me, ‘She won’t hurt you.’ I went back in and never had a problem after that,” Gary said.

There’s no shortage of stories about Bob Eagle.

“You had to know Bob Eagle and his sense of humor,” Gary said. “If he could pull a joke over on you, he’d get the biggest kick out of it.”

Gary remembers him as a lot of fun to work with. One day Bob was working on a body when he got a call to take someone to the hospital.

When Gary arrived to help with the run, Bob turned to the body and said, “Don’t go away. We’ll be right back.”

There was a little sliding window that separated the driver from the back of the ambulance. One day Dick was in the driver seat transporting a patient in a critical state. Bob slid the window open and yelled, “I thought I told you to put the pedal to the metal.”

There were many terrible situations that ambulance services encountered, from traffic crashes to the odd accident, such as a gas field explosion, Wilma recalls.

A woman was once returning home from work with a large soup kettle of grease in the back seat, and her car went off the road and into the ditch, sending grease everywhere.

The rescue was enough of a challenge because the woman was quite large, Charlie told her later, but it was compounded because the victim was slick with grease.

Chris recalls a drunken man threatening to shoot his girlfriend. She took the gun away and shot him. The victim was taken to Ann Arbor for treatment, he said, and he dropped the girlfriend off at the Sheriff’s Department in Adrian on the way home.

No one ever paid for that transport.

On another occasion, the ambulance arrived and the patient walked onto the porch and sat down on the stretcher.

“He just wanted a ride to the hospital,” Chris said.

Not the best job

Bad pay and inconvenient. That’s Chris’s description of the job.

“You had to be tied to the phone really closely,” he said. “You had to be available now and not in 15 minutes.”

Eventually, stiffer regulations forced funeral homes out of the ambulance business.

“They did us a favor by getting us out of it,” Chris said. “At first I was a little disgruntled because you don’t like to be told what to do.”

But it didn’t take long to realize the freedom he had been granted.

“There aren’t a lot of what you’d call good memories,” he said.

In 1963, Morenci Fire Department members started training to become certified for ambulance duty and in 1964 they purchased a vehicle from the Ackland & Fink Funeral Home. Eventually, the funeral home owners returned the money to help the department upgrade the vehicle.

An oxygen mask and tanks were needed, along with a cutting torch and first aid items. The department already owned a resuscitator and that was also placed in the ambulance.

A similar process got underway in Fayette. Gary Rice believes it was the early 1970s when the fire department took over. He recalls the first Medicruiser ambulance arriving in 1976, replacing the original pea-green Dodge van they started off using.

That marked the end of the undertaker as first responder, and that eventually led to a higher level of skill for ambulance crews.

It was an interesting time, Chris Fink says, but not something you’d want to do again.

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