Rick Harrington: EMS ‘pioneer, legend, icon’

Tom KingFountain City, Our Town Heroes

Ordinary is not a word to be associated with Richard Lee “Rick” Harrington. Extraordinary is.

He’s 72. Rides a bicycle to and from work from his Fountain City home to the University of Tennessee Medical Center where he is an overnight dispatcher for UT Lifestar’s helicopters.

Rick Harrington

A fellow professional describes him: “… People don’t realize the knowledge that’s under that bike helmet when they see him passing by and have no idea who he is or that he could save their life in a second! I’m telling you, this guy lives and breathes EMS (emergency medical services) work.”

And 2022 marks his 52nd year as an EMS professional. He was among the first in Tennessee to be certified as an EMT (emergency medical technician) in 1972 and a paramedic in 1975. He holds more than 15 certifications … things like trench and vehicle rescue, hazardous materials, advance critical life support and many more. In 2013 he added the title of Flight Paramedic at Lifestar.

Some saw and recognized his skills in 1986 as a young emergency first responder when he saved the life of an unconscious woman by intubating her as she was hanging upside down by her seatbelt in a tragic accident on I-40 at Papermill Drive. More about this later.

Professionals here use the terms “pioneer” and “legend” and “icon” when asked about Harrington. “He’s my ultimate mentor and a true hero of this community,” says John Whited, former Knox County Rescue assistant chief and now battalion chief rescue at Rural Metro. “There’s no telling how many lives Rick has saved in his career.”

That career spans seven years at the old Knoxville Ambulance Service following graduation from Tennessee Wesleyan College, five years with the Knoxville Fire Department, a year at East Tennessee EMS, a year at Lifestar, then a leave of absence from Lifestar to help Rural Metro begin EMS operations in Knox County, then back to Lifestar for what has been a 36-year career there.

There’s more. In 1986 he was a technical adviser for Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) radiation accident response training. And all the while, beginning in 1975, he was a member of the Knoxville Volunteer Rescue Squad, now Knox County Rescue. He served three terms as its chief and was a chaplain. He was part of the medical team for the 1982 World’s Fair. Since 2000 he has served as the EMS emergency response coordinator/adviser for the Knox County Health Department. Get the drift here? Extraordinary!

Of his career he says: “I strongly feel my career is a great example of God’s perfect plan and timing. It was what I was meant and equipped to do. I’m one of those people who could honestly say my work is my hobby and I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this.”

Fountain City guy

He’s a lifelong Fountain City guy, still sharing his late parent’s home at 4106 Fulton Drive with his 82-year-old brother, Tom, who also remains very active as a volunteer interpreter at the Cades Cove Visitor’s Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is an avid hiker. Their father, T.R., owned an insurance company and his mother, Chloe, was a well-known artist who died at 103. He has two other brothers. Jim, 77, who lives in Atlanta, and Charles, 81, and his wife who live within a mile of Harrington. Both have Parkinson’s. “We all help care for them,” Harrington said.

His career pretty much began in 1969 at Tennessee Wesleyan. He was a junior, taking a required American Red Cross Advanced First Aid class. “I was walking across campus to take the final in the class when a worker fell three stories from a building onto a concrete step. He was unconscious with severe head injuries. When the ambulance arrived (a hearse-style Cadillac) there was only one person aboard. We got the man on the stretcher and the ambulance driver told me to get in back and ride in with him. That was my first ambulance experience. When I showed up late to take the First Aid final the instructor looked at me and said, ‘I heard what you did – you don’t have to take the final, you got an A in the class.’”

The next summer he was with a buddy driving down Broadway and passed an old beat-up Knoxville Ambulance Service van. The next day he applied for a job and was hired. “Back then if you could breathe, they’d hire you. No real training. They hired taxi drivers because they knew where to go. Very little equipment. We basically just used the load-and-go technique.”

Much has changed since those days and Harrington is a major part of the change. For a while he was the only paramedic working in Knox County, responding to calls at all hours. “When I started, things were basically done the same way they had been done for many, many years, except the means of transportation. I got in on the ground floor and got to experience the transition to where we are today.”

And about saving the life of a college-aged woman on a dark night in 1986 on the interstate … “I was on my way to a friend’s house to feed their cat and came up on this accident at I-40 at Papermill. An 18-wheeler lost control and hit several cars. Six people were killed. They thought this woman in the car was dead. Her head was pressed against the window. I glanced at her and shined my light and saw her try to take a breath,” Harrington said. “I could only see part of her face.”

He told the first responders he thought she was alive … and she was. “It was dark and I knew what I had to do. The ambulance crew brought me what I needed,” he recalls. “I had to reorient myself since she was upside down. Everything was backwards from my training.” He laid on his back and shoulder outside the driver’s door and performed a successful intubation between the vocal cords and into the windpipe and inflated the plastic tube with a syringe. Other than the truck driver, she was the only person who survived.

Today at Lifestar, he works seven days on, seven days off. On those work days you can see him pedaling past KFD’s Station 15 on Jacksboro Pike around 4 p.m. He avoids the busy streets, takes back-road routes to downtown and picks up the greenway at World’s Fair Park and then on the hospital. He rides either a Haro or Red Line hybrid mountain bike and has worn out five or six. This began in 2008 and he pedals an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 miles annually for something close to 40,000 miles in 13 years. He’s never had an accident.

Why ride a bike?

“In 2008 I had a physical and I was overweight and pre-diabetic along with other health issues and that’s when I started on the bike. Today I’m in great shape and my resting heart rate is in the high 40s,” he said. “Freaks out the nurses.”

Through the years a number of awards have come his way. Two stand out. In 2014 the Tennessee Regional II Emergency Medical Services Directors Association of Rescue Squads presented him with its Lifetime Achievement Award and in 1982 he was honored with the Sertoma Service to Mankind Award.

Retirement? “I have no plans. I’m in good health and still have my faculties. Maybe in two or three years. I’d like to do more work at church (he’s a lifelong member of Fountain City United Methodist Church). My brother and I take CDs of our services to shut-ins when I’m not working on Sundays.

“I enjoy working and I wouldn’t keep doing it if I didn’t love it. When I was too old to fly on the helicopters I transitioned to inside work (2013). It has its rewards and challenges. It’s been quite a career. It hasn’t always been smooth or easy, but it has been a great ride.”

And Rick Harrington is still riding.

Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California and was the editor of two newspapers. Suggest future stories at tking535@gmail.com or call him at 865-659-3562.

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