It’s hard enough to be a head nurse in a busy emergency room while holding down what basically amounts to another full-time job as the president of your local ambulance corps. Now try doing it during a pandemic. That’s what Deborah O’Brien, one of two honorees as Sag Harbor’s Person of the Year, has been up to throughout 2020.
Ms. O’Brien said serving the community by helping people in their times of greatest need was a trait instilled in her as a child. Her grandfather, John A. Schoen, helped found the Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance Corps, and her three siblings have also served as ambulance volunteers in various capacities over the years. Her father, Ernie Schoen, was active in the fire department, and her husband, Kevin O’Brien, a former Sag Harbor Village police officer, served as Sag Harbor fire chief in the early 1990s. And now, a quarter of a century later, her son, Kevin O’Brien Jr., is taking over that leadership role.
“It’s stressful,” is the matter-of-fact phrase Ms. O’Brien used repeatedly during a recent interview to describe what the year of COVID-19 has been like for the 27 members of the ambulance corps. Calls take longer because ambulances have to be decontaminated after each run; volunteers are required to wear personal protective equipment when they transport patients suspected of having COVID-19; they worry that they are exposing themselves and their families to the disease.
“It has taken a toll on people,” she said.
Although it is no secret that ambulance companies across the East End have gotten busier over the years, Sag Harbor, which had answered more than 700 calls by mid-December, has seen its numbers remain flat this year, Ms. O’Brien said. Rather than cause for relief, it’s cause for more concern, she said, because people who would normally call the ambulance for a serious emergency, such as a possible heart attack or stroke, are now reluctant to seek help for fear of contracting COVID-19.
On first meeting, Ms. O’Brien, a no-nonsense, straight talker, can be intimidating even though she stands maybe 5-foot-2. You wouldn’t say she’s Marine drill instructor tough, but she does remind one of a stern, but dedicated teacher, who has already heard every excuse in the book about lost homework assignments. Her fellow volunteers are quick to say that gruff exterior belies the compassion she has for others.
“She genuinely cares — not just for the patients, but for the people who volunteer,” said Sag Harbor Village Trustee Thomas Gardella, a former Sag Harbor fire chief who is also a member of the ambulance corps.
“Debbie is one of those people who brings an air of professionalism” to the ambulance corps, he said, adding that she expected the same of others. “You’re representing the community as a volunteer responder and she expects you to do it professionally.”
“She is dedicated, patient, calm, reassuring, and very well versed at what she does.
She is just a tremendous asset to have on the ambulance and to lead the corps as well,” said village attorney Denise Schoen, Ms. O’Brien’s sister-in-law and a former ambulance volunteer herself. “I loved working with her. She was always just incredibly supportive of everyone.”
Melissa Hessler, the corps’ vice president, said Ms. O’Brien, a former accountant, runs the ambulance office like a tight little business. “She spends literally 40 hours a week at headquarters, taking care of the ordering, doing the books,” she said.
It was Ms. O’Brien who did the research and convinced the village to buy an Aeroclave machine, which allows ambulances to be disinfected from the exterior after a run, Ms. Hessler said. Likewise, it was Ms. O’Brien who searched high and low to make sure the ambulance corps had enough personal protective equipment when the pandemic drove up prices and supplies were hard to find, she said.
Plus, Ms. Hessler pointed out, it has been Ms. O’Brien who has enforced discipline among corps members when it comes to wearing masks and taking other steps to avoid contracting the virus. “Not one member of our corps has tested positive,” she said.
Ms. O’Brien, whose real job is a charge nurse in the Stony Brook Southampton Hospital emergency room, “puts herself at risk at work and at the ambulance” every day, Ms. Hessler added.
Ironically, it was her volunteerism with the ambulance that led Ms. O’Brien to give up accounting after a 24-year career to study nursing at Stony Brook University. “I liked the ambulance and I just didn’t want to sit behind a desk anymore, so I went back and got my nursing degree,” she said. “Taking care of people became a big part of my life and I wanted to do it on a full-time basis.”
Her younger brother, Jon Schoen, remembers vividly his sister’s early enthusiasm for nursing. When he was a teenager and she was training to become an EMT, he came into the house after having broken his arm. “She comes flying out of her room,” he recalled. “She was all happy because she wanted to practice her splinting.” He swears he didn’t let her touch his arm back then, but would have no trepidation doing so today.
Mr. Schoen estimated that his family had racked up easily between 125 and 150 years combined serving on the ambulance. Ms. O’Brien has served 38 years herself, and for all but one of those years, she was either an officer or director, with several terms as president spread over the decades.
“It just seemed like a normal thing for our family to be doing,” said one of Ms. O’Brien’s sisters, Christine, who now lives in Eldred, Pennsylvania, and volunteered in both Sag Harbor and Springs. Another sister, JoAnn, also a nurse who now lives in Washington State, was also a Sag Harbor ambulance volunteer. “I really think it runs in our blood. None of us ever questioned it. None of us did it because we got a tap on the shoulder. We did it because we like helping people.”
But she added that her sister is extra dedicated and has taken on more than her share of responsibilities over the years. “I don’t know how she finds the time to live her own life,” she said.
She added that her sister is both a devoted mother and grandmother. Besides her son, Ms. O’Brien has two daughters, Erin Tice, who has two children, Fiona and Connor, and Catherine, all of whom live on the West Coast.
Ms. O’Brien herself has known firsthand the importance of professional and compassionate healthcare. Years ago, a radiologist discovered a tumor on her pancreas when doctors were trying to diagnose whether or not she had a kidney stone. Ms. O’Brien underwent major surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where doctors were able to remove the encapsulated tumor before it had a chance to spread.
“Luckily, it was found in the very early stages,” Ms. O’Brien said. “I didn’t even need chemo or radiation.”
But nobody survives pancreatic cancer, right?
“Someone must have been watching over me,” she said.