Passing the Torch to the Next Generation of Volunteers
Posted December 31, 2017 4:49 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — James Robinson was explaining how he ended up in his own ambulance, not in front at the wheel, but in the back, injured.
Strictly speaking, the ambulance was not his, although there are those who say it might as well be, just as they say he is running a one-person ambulance service, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps. It began in 1989 as an urban twist on the grass-roots groups in towns in the suburbs and upstate, and was born of a different need. Ambulance response times were slow. The corps cut the wait from half an hour to minutes, answering calls in volunteers’ own cars. The day it got an actual ambulance, the corps saved 10 people at a fire. The second day, corps members delivered a baby.
Nowadays, Robinson, known as Rocky, sometimes goes and waits where there might be trouble. On Labor Day, he stationed himself along the route of the West Indian American Day Parade, on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. He has done this in past years, but something was different this time. Robinson, 77, was in a wheelchair, having had a toe amputated. He has had diabetes for 35 years and a donated kidney — from a son who has been part of the corps — for 17.
Violence has long marred the parade. This year the city doubled the number of police officers assigned to patrol the festivities. The police also ran a gun buyback program and even posted flyers that said the obvious: “Do not shoot anyone.”
The parade was almost over when someone did. The gunfire was on a side street, the victim a 22-year-old man. The bullet struck him in the torso. The crowd panicked and scattered, running toward Eastern Parkway.
“Guess who they trampled,” Robinson said last month. “Me. They were waving ‘Rocky! Rocky!’ They all know me. I was trying to get people to save lives and nearly lost mine. Instead of running to me for help, they trampled me. They crushed the whole foot.” That was not all. He said the crowd had knocked down a metal barricade. Merlin Pointer, a member of the corps who is known as Porgy, described that moment. “I was holding the barricade up, or it was going to crush him,” Pointer said. Robinson, across the room, nodded, adding, “He kept me from being crushed completely.”
At least the ambulance was nearby. Keith Brown, one of the “vollies,” as Robinson calls volunteers, did the driving. At the hospital, the doctors concluded that his foot was not treatable, and amputated it.
Back home after he was released, he turned a backroom into a dispatch center away from the dispatch center, a trailer on a corner a few blocks away where the corps also conducts classes to train prospective emergency medical technicians. Propped up in a recliner, Robinson kept an eye on video feeds from the trailer, and if he did not like what he saw — if he did not think things were moving fast enough — he could always grab his cellphone and call.
A few weeks ago, there was another hospitalization, and another amputation. He went home again in time for Christmas. The corps is one of 34 volunteer emergency service agencies in New York City and one of 29 certified to give basic life support, which means that the vollies can carry a patient to a hospital and provide first aid along the way.
Five other volunteer companies can provide advanced life support, which the 29 cannot. The five companies have a paramedic onboard and can administer drugs if necessary. The others, which send two emergency medical technicians, cannot.
A conversation about the corps leads to recollections: recollections of what life in Bedford-Stuyvesant was like in the 1980s and how the emergency medical services took too long to respond to calls from a neighborhood notorious for its violence.
“EMS got there no faster or slower than it got anywhere throughout the ‘80s,” said Dr. Alexander E. Kuehl, who was medical director of EMS and a vice president of the city’s Health and Hospitals Corp. then. “It got better.”
But he said there was a need for more than a volunteer ambulance corps. “What there was, really, was a need for was community organizations in the ghetto,” he said. “There was a need to get people out of the ghetto.”
Kuehl said the corps opened a pathway to EMS with training programs for emergency medical technicians that took young people off the streets. “That was the catch about EMS when I got there: You had to have a driver’s license and your EMT card to join EMS,” he said, “I needed to have a way for ghetto kids to get that card like the kids on suburban Long Island,” where volunteer fire departments are deeply entrenched in many towns and villages and provide the training for young people. Robinson said he set out to supplement EMS, not supplant it. “They never thought black guys would want to save lives,” he said, without specifying who “they” were. “It’s about neighbor helping neighbor. I don’t see the color of the skin.”
Looking back, Robinson said he had credibility in the neighborhood because of his past. Not his time in the military police, and not the time he carried the Olympic torch, but his time as a juvenile offender. “I was a hoodlum,” he said.
As the corps became a fixture in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the number of volunteers increased. “One day I looked around Fifth Avenue, there were 50 or 60, learning how to save lives,” he said. “Everybody was former drug dealers.” Some of the vollies went on to become nurses and paramedics.
Now some corps members say there has been interest from newcomers in the neighborhood. “We had a couple of white people come in, a couple of Jewish people,” said Prince Isaac Rodriguez. “We’ll take anybody at the door.”
Robinson’s son Reggie, the kidney donor, works as a welder. “The corps, we don’t get much money, and he couldn’t afford to give me a salary,” Reggie Robinson said. “A lot of times, that place runs off of Pop’s pension.”
Rocky Robinson said his son Antoine would take over the corps now, and in the trailer, Antoine Robinson was teaching the basics of anatomy and physiology and sounding as if the class was not up to speed. “C’mon, guys, this is easy stuff,” he said.
Rocky Robinson, in his recliner a couple of blocks away, said he was not worried about the corps — or his changing role, now that he cannot get around the way he once did. “I’m not the one who’s going to keep the trucks going now,” he said. “It’s the young people. I’m going to show them how. They’ve got to know what to do.”