Disaster Meets Its Match

Squad Chief had to weather skepticism before she faced 40 years of rescue work

DETERMINATION AT WORK
“I like to empower other people to do their job,” says Henderson County Rescue Squad Chief Kathy Morgan.
Portrait by Karin Strickland

Snow started falling hard and fast on the evening of Friday, March 12, 1993. Then came the howling, icy wind and spine-tingling off-season lightning. 

The Blizzard of ’93, a low-pressure system that originated in the Gulf of Mexico and marched up the Eastern Seaboard, crippled Western North Carolina. It blanketed the French Broad River Valley in some 22 inches of snow, leaving residents without power, food, water, and other essentials. 

“Four-wheel-drive ambulances were the lifeblood of Henderson County,” remembers Kathy Morgan. At the time, Morgan had served on the Henderson County Rescue Squad for more than a decade. She had saved lost, half-frozen hikers and recovered bodies from frothy rivers muddied by rain. But she had never experienced anything like the Blizzard of ’93. 

Chief Kathy Morgan and Board of Directors Chairman Mike Edney lead rescue exercises at the Winter Alpine Class (contributed photo).

Morgan recalls that emergency personnel worked 72-hour shifts, napping between calls. “Nothing was typical about the blizzard. We transported nurses and doctors to the hospital and drove medicine to folks living on high mountains. I even came close to delivering a baby,” says Morgan. “Those were my most significant rescues.”

Last February, Morgan stepped on as the first woman chief of the Rescue Squad, an independent organization that works closely with Henderson County Emergency Management to assist in times of disaster. This May, she will celebrate 40 years with the team.

Emergency-ready vehicles and equipment.
Photo by Karin Strickland

Photo by Karin Strickland

“Whether it’s responding to a call or cleaning up the station, Kathy is right there in the middle of everything,” says Mike Edney, Board of Directors Chairman for the Rescue Squad. He first met Morgan when they were both students at Hendersonville High School. “She leads by example and has kept us on the strait-and-narrow for many years.”

But a lot has changed since the early 1980s, when Morgan joined the Rescue Squad. Back then, she was working as a physical-education teacher in Hendersonville — she would retire in 2006 as Assistant Principal of Hendersonville High — and moonlighting with the Red Cross as a CPR and lifeguard instructor. When she proposed applying to volunteer with the Rescue Squad to Chief Herman Hawkins, a friend and crossing guard, he was skeptical. Since the organization’s inception in 1957, only men had been emergency responders. 

“We are a family,” Morgan (right, with Edney) says of the Henderson County Rescue Squad.
Photo by Karin Strickland

She remembers Hawkins drawing on his pipe and remarking, “Oh, I don’t know. That’ll take some hard work, Kathy.”

If anything, though, the challenge made Morgan want it more; she is a trailblazer in that way. While studying at Elon University in the ’70s, for instance, Morgan was instrumental in forming the first women’s basketball and volleyball teams. Understanding that changing the status quo takes time, Morgan waited a full year to be voted in as a volunteer responder. 

“It took a few calls for the others to see I could perform the needed skills,” says Morgan. “But once that happened, I was well accepted.”

She reveals that one man who voted against her joining later apologized, saying, “I made a mistake.”

In the years to come, Morgan made herself invaluable, not only to the Rescue Squad but to Henderson County as a whole. In 1983, she approached EMS Director Tom Edmundson about becoming an Emergency Medical Technician. “I told him that I would ride in the ambulance for free,” Morgan recalls. Edmundson did her one better: He offered Morgan a part-time job paying $3.15 per hour. She also assumed oversight of the Rescue Squad’s finances while juggling teaching and a seasonal gig on the Wolf Ridge Ski Patrol. Needless to say, she is not one to rest on her laurels — or sit at a desk, for that matter. 

“I like to empower other people to do their job,” says Morgan, who now oversees roughly 100 paid and volunteer staff, half of which are women. “I don’t expect anyone to do anything I wouldn’t expect of myself.”

In Morgan’s 40 years of service, she has responded to hundreds of standard calls — for the past six years, the Rescue Squad has handled all non-emergency transfers — and what she calls “innumerable unique rescues.” She has encountered heart-wrenching tragedies. During one such call, she responded to the suicide of a colleague. During another, she spent Christmas Eve searching for a loved one’s body in a river. These events would be impossible to endure without the brotherhood — and now sisterhood — of emergency personnel. 

“It’s hard to explain to someone who isn’t in it,” says Morgan. “But there is this camaraderie among us; we are a family.”

That sense of community has proven especially critical in times of COVID-19. “The pandemic placed a lot of stress on employees and volunteers,” says Morgan, who has navigated shortages in personal protective equipment, conducted respirator fit tests, and watched the virus infect a family member. Morgan also contracted the virus herself: “I was out of commission for two weeks and received an EUA [Experimental Use Authorization] drug treatment,” she reveals.

The Rescue Squad is also part of a COVID-19 Strike Team that responds to outbreaks at long-term-care facilities; the team was featured on NBC News last October. In late December, the Squad administered vaccines to approximately 140 first responders and assisted Public Health in organizing and administering Henderson County’s first mass vaccination clinic of 250 long-term-care residents.

“It just seems never-ending,” says Morgan, “and always something new — but it is absolutely fantastic that Henderson County is able to administer the vaccine.”

Edney describes Morgan as the Rescue Squad’s “cheerleader” through the pandemic. “She’s kept our spirits up through these terrible times,” he says. “She’s a ball of energy, always has been.”

Morgan, who is motivated by those “everyday encounters with patients,” expects that she will never be able to step away from the Rescue Squad completely. After several decades, the work is too much a part of her life.    

“But I am hopeful that in the next year I can cut back. I want to head off to the great blue yonder,” Morgan laughs. “Plus, I have a golf game that needs some attention.”

To learn more about the Henderson County Rescue Squad, visit their website at hendersoncountyrescue.org. 

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