Paul DuPree will never forget the bittersweet moment he and fellow first-responders recovered the body of a young college student who had drowned in a lake in Chapel Hill.
Working with Haywood County Emergency Medical Services at the time, he had encountered similar traumatic incidents, but due to the victim’s age and knowledge that the student’s mother had been waiting on the shoreline each day for nearly a month after he drowned, DuPree remembered the details of the search and rescue as though it were yesterday.
His EMS unit had responded to assist the search after a mutual aid request had been sent out statewide.
“For whatever reason,” DuPree said, “we just got lucky and found him on our first day there.”
Certified in swift-water rescue and also a dive master with the Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI), DuPree’s expertise required he remain mindful of numerous factors during the mission.
Forced to dive more than 100 feet past the frigid water’s surface, he and other first-responders ran the risk of placing too much pressure on their bodies and lungs.
“Every 33 feet is a different atmosphere,” he said, “and carbon dioxide builds up in our bloodstream. You (also) have to ascend at a certain rate…or your lungs could explode.”
DuPree later spoke to the distraught mother, who thanked crews for finally giving her closure about her son.
“Just her relief and satisfaction made all our efforts worthwhile,” he said.
While that incident took place years ago, long before DuPree was offered the operations supervisor position at Lincoln County EMS in April 2004, he remains a certified dive master.
Earlier this month, he celebrated his win as the Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) of the Year for both the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 1706 in Lincolnton and the state VFW branch.
The award is given to an EMT/paramedic with experience and long-term success in the field, DuPree said.
The VFW’s national commander even sent DuPree a certificate recognizing the local EMS supervisor’s public service. He is also being considered for the award at the national level, he said.
Originally nominated by his superiors, he called the achievement “the highlight” of his career.
These days, instead of working the front lines of wrecks and other medical calls, DuPree caters to the safety and needs of the 12 to 16 paramedics and EMTs on his shift.
He often fluctuates between missing the direct patient care and appreciating not having to experience the mental and often physical hardships associated with emergency response.
“I don’t miss getting a call at 4 a.m. and standing out in the rain,” he said.
One of four shift supervisors with the local agency, the 44-year-old works a day shift, a switch he made following eight years of night duty.
“My job primarily is managing people,” he said, “but I do still go on calls but don’t work on an ambulance; I work on a supervisor vehicle alone…It’s a huge responsibility.”
He’s thankful for the county’s support and the sufficient supply of well-equipped trucks and other EMS equipment the agency currently maintains, making first-responders’ jobs easier.
DuPree’s first encounter with emergency work began in the mid-1980s at age 15 when he volunteered as a junior fireman with his local fire agency.
In 1987, the same year he graduated from high school, he received his basic EMT certification and enlisted in the United States Air Force as a military police security specialist, spending time in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm.
His decision to enter the military stemmed from both his patriotic nature and his desire to travel the world and observe other cultures.
During active duty he still conducted EMT work, serving part-time with an EMS agency in Kinston, located near Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, where he was stationed at the time.
After transitioning from active duty to the reserves in 1991, DuPree returned to his hometown in Haywood County, simultaneously serving EMS duties for the county EMS agency and a local Cherokee Indian reservation.
He said his decision to transition from law enforcement to EMS simply flowed from a stronger passion for the medical field.
“I just had a greater interest in the medical side of things,” DuPree said, “and thought it would be a more sustainable career in the long run.”
Despite a difference in his job title and certain responsibilities attached to the career, a common thread weaves all first-responders together, he said, whether they work for EMS or a fire or law enforcement agency.
“You get the feeling you are giving something back or making a difference in the world,” DuPree said.
During his time with the reservation, he took classes to learn the Cherokee language in order to better communicate with the tribe’s elders, who often still speak Cherokee.
“It was wonderful,” he said of the work, “but very, very different.”
Most interesting to him was the tribe’s funeral custom of spending 24 hours with a deceased loved one’s body before burial.
Because the emotional experience had potential to produce heart attacks and other medial illnesses during the grieving process, DuPree and fellow first-responders were often placed on stand-by at the family’s home during the day-long event.
DuPree eventually secured his paramedic license in 1992 and later received a promotion to operations supervisor with Haywood County EMS.
In 1997, he exited the reserves, but continued to serve as a first-responder.
While a majority of calls throughout his career have been tragic, due to the nature of the job, he’s found joy in the moments he’s been able to assist individuals with broken down vehicles or women on the verge of childbirth.
Three years ago, DuPree said he was the first EMS worker to arrive at the home of a woman in labor.
Upon pulling up to the property, he spotted local firefighters waiting outside the home, instantly concerning him.
However, he later learned they had been waiting for EMS to help the mother push.
“She was already crowning,” DuPree said.
“The head was visible so I just my gloves on and started doing my thing.”
After giving birth, the woman thanked first-responders and asked for a group picture.
“The mother wanted us to stick around and have a photo shoot,” DuPree said laughing.
He and others on scene even took turns holding the baby.
Ironically, the experience prepared him for his own daughter’s delivery in February, after his girlfriend, too, couldn’t make it the hospital on time.
Instead, the baby entered the world inside their vehicle parked outside a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant off N.C. 16.
Even though DuPree has worked as a first-responder for more than two decades, certain calls still jolt him, particularly those involving children.
“I can still see the face of every child I’ve ever had to treat,” he said.
Since joining the staff at Lincoln County EMS, he’s worked two separate cases involving a child victim mauled by a pit bull.
He also remembered serving on the multi-county rescue crew called to last year’s fatal trench collapse in Stanley, in which two children were buried alive on a relative’s property.
“I don’t know that you ever get used to it,” he said. “It sounds callous to get used to it. They all have an effect on you.”
Other than his VFW honors and the birth of his newest child, DuPree has much to celebrate this year.
In a week, he will graduate from American Military University with a bachelor’s degree in emergency and disaster management.
The achievement comes nearly three years after he started work on the degree, he said.
DuPree also maintains an associate’s degree in emergency management from Caldwell Community College and three undergraduate certificates, one each in disaster, response and recovery, disaster mitigation and preparedness and EMS management, which he obtained from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
His next goal is to enroll in a master’s program for public health.
“It’s been a very interesting career,” DuPree said. “There’s always something different.”