Saltwater Portrait

Jim May says goodbye to patrol, hello to beach

Dewey EMT prepares for post-Labor Day retirement
August 27, 2013

A familiar face on Dewey Beach Patrol is planning his retirement.  Jim May, the patrol’s on-staff emergency medical technician, says Labor Day will be his last shift.

May has been a staple on Dewey Beach Patrol since the summer of 1998, when his son, Bryan, got a job as a lifeguard.  It was Patrol Capt. Todd Frichtman’s second year on the job.

“They were looking for an EMT,” May said.  “And I’ve been here ever since.”

Originally from Auburn, N.Y., May, 62, started working as an orderly and ambulance attendant for a local hospital at age 16, when emergency medicine was in its infancy.  “At that time, there was no training,” May said.  “It was all on-the-job.”

In the 1960s, the American Red Cross began offering training for May and others in the emergency medical field.  In the early 1970s, May was trained as an emergency medical technician through the state of New York at Auburn Community College.  “At that time, doctors taught the courses,” he said.  “It was all brand new.”

In 1973, May said, he moved to Delaware and got a new job working on an ambulance for Wilmington Medical Center, now Christiana Care Health System.  One year later, May started working as an EMT for New Castle County.

There are several levels of EMT; a paramedic is the highest level.  May was sent to a six-week training school for paramedics in 1976.  “I was in the second class they ever had,” he said.

It wasn’t until 1979 that the American Board of Medical Specialties voted to recognize emergency medicine as a medical specialty.  Training for paramedics today takes about two years.

May lived in New Castle County and worked as a county paramedic for 34 years.

May and his wife, Kathleen – a nurse at A.I. duPont Hospital in Wilmington – relocated to Rehoboth Beach in 2002.  May commuted back and forth between the Cape Region and New Castle County until he retired as a paramedic, Aug. 1, 2008.

“I like Dewey for the visitors that come here from year to year,” May said.  “You get to know them.”

“And every year, they come looking for you,” he said.

May said he got to know one visitor, Frank, a man in his 80s, by giving him rides on the four-wheeler year after year because, May said, he was unstable on his feet.  Last Memorial Day, Frank gave May a gift.  “He did a portrait of me,” May said.

“It was really special,” he said.  “It felt kind of nice to think somebody thought that much about me.”

But May also has darker memories of his time with the beach patrol. One August, about seven years ago, a 17-year-old boy took a dive into the water on Houston Street, and came up floating facedown, he said.

May said lifeguards called him to the scene; when he arrived, the guards had performed CPR, and the boy was conscious and breathing.  May said he remembers the boy saying, “I can’t feel my legs,” and “Please don’t let me die.”

“He was shipped by airlift to Christiana Care,” May said.  “I remember talking to his parents at the scene.”  May said he tracked the boy's progress through connections he had made as a paramedic at the hospital.  He also kept in touch with the boy's parents.

“He dove into the water, and he’s now paralyzed from the neck down,” May said.

May said the situation could have been worse.  “All the guards did everything perfectly, and that’s why he’s here today,” he said.  “I see him all the time.”

Overall, the Dewey Beach Patrol track record is a good one, May said.  “Nobody has perished from a spinal cord injury in Dewey since I’ve been here,” he said.

May said he has been spreading the word to many repeat visitors that he won’t be a part of the patrol next year.  “I told them, ‘Now I’ll just come down here and sit next to you,’” he said.

May said from now on, he plans to spend his summers fishing and relaxing on the beach.  He also plans to remain active as a member of Dewey Lions Club and Rehoboth Volunteer Fire Company.

May spends his winters visiting Bryan, who now lives in Pensacola, Fla.  His deep tan and his work attire – typically a sun-faded navy blue Dewey Beach Patrol T-shirt – are evidence that May follows the warm weather.

His daughter, Colleen, lives in Pennsylvania with his two grandchildren, whom he plans to spend more time with after his last day, Monday, Sept. 2.

Sitting in the Dewey Beach Life Saving Station at the end of the day, May bids farewell to each lifeguard by name as they pack up and head home.

May calls them “kids,” but many of the lifeguards are on their way to professional careers.  He said many beach patrol alumni are now doctors and lawyers.  “I’ve watched a lot of these people come up through the ranks,” he said.

May said he would miss the “kids” most when he retires, and the camaraderie of Dewey Beach Patrol.

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