He’s a special kinda guy, this Patrick Donnelly. He grew up in Montgomery Village in South Knoxville, the eldest of six children with parents, he says, “who never really worked.” The odds didn’t matter to him. He was an Eagle Scout at 17 and graduated from South-Doyle High School, class of ’98.
Today, he is in his 19th year as an emergency services/first responder professional. After 13 years at Rural Metro and two years at Grainger County Emergency Medical Services (EMS), he’s currently in his fourth year at Anderson County EMS. As a paramedic, he works out of Station 2 in Oak Ridge and lives less than three miles from the station.
Anderson County EMS has 24 ambulances and is headquartered in Clinton, led by Chief Nathan Sweet.
Donnelly, 40, has spent these 19 years riding in ambulances, in the front and mostly in the back. He’s seen it all: mangled bodies in vehicle and motorcycle accidents, adults and children, murders, suicides, drug overdoses, stabbings, heart attacks and strokes, people injured in falls, burn victims, drownings and who knows what else. He’s delivered six babies. As the paramedic, he’s the one caring for the patient on the stretcher and talking with the hospital emergency rooms en route. He’s helped save lives and has seen lives end in the ambulance.
He has categories for the emergency calls, bad, good and ugly.
Even today, he wonders at times how he survived Montgomery Village. His penchant for learning drove him then and now. “Why settle for what you know now and why stop learning?” he says. He found Boy Scout Troop 5 at St. John’s Episcopal Church and the Rural Metro Explorer program in junior high.
“Those two things helped save my life,” he says. “The odds were stacked against me from the start. But I did what I needed to do to survive.”
That learning he mentioned continues. First, it was an associate degree in science from Pellissippi State Community College in 2013. Next came a bachelor’s in marketing/management in 2018 from Western Governor’s University “to enhance my leadership and management skills,” he says. Recently, he completed his master’s degree in the same field from the same school.
In addition to his years as a paramedic on ambulances, he earned his EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) instructor/coordinator certification from the state of Tennessee in 2015. He’s been an agency training coordinator and teaches EMT and Advanced EMT classes.
This job hardens many first responders, Donnelly included. But he always focuses on the positive. “I know there are countless lives I’ve made a difference in,” he says, “but I treat patients like family. The best care is sometimes just holding their hand in the ambulance.”
He remembers a call during the holidays a year or so ago. An elderly man had a heart attack at home. “We worked on him for 10 or 15 minutes and we couldn’t get him back. His wife was there and said she was at peace and he was as well. I stood up and she wanted a hug and I hugged her. I remember those happy moments and we touched each other’s life.”
A bad car wreck still rattles around in his memory bank. “The fire guys were already there and when we drove in there was a little 7-year-old girl who was lifeless,” he says. “We worked on her and brought her back. She was flown to UT Hospital and lived. That was a good call.”
These ambulance professionals see and hear a lot of things none of us would want to see or hear, the screams from pain, the blood, the bodies, the heart attack victims, injured babies and kids and on it goes. How does Donnelly cope?
“We have a great, wonderful support group here at Anderson County EMS and we reach out to each other and sit down and talk,” he said. “It’s not good if you crawl inside a bottle and keep it all there.”
Another coping mechanism he uses is the TV and watching college football. Being a native of Florida, he’s a University of Florida fan and some call him “Gator.”
He’s a proud man, first in his family to earn a college diploma, a father who loves three daughters, a man who describes himself as “humble, grateful, blessed and driven.” He also says: “My kids keep me going to improve each day and are also my means of peace and happiness after rough shifts. It’s really tough sometimes out here.”
Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California and has been the editor of two newspapers. He writes this Monday column – Our Town Heroes – for KnoxTNToday.com. Suggest future stories at email@example.com or 865-659-3562.