For almost 30 years, he has been there to help countless people get through critical health situations and injuries from accidents, as well as assisting those who have fallen. He’s responded to fires, snowstorms, floods and severe thunderstorms not only throughout McDowell but in other North Carolina counties.
In fact, there is no way of knowing just how many lives John Bruner has saved throughout his distinguished career as a paramedic.
“I don’t know how many lives I’ve touched,” he said. “I don’t know how many calls I made.”
Bruner, 53, officially retired as of July 1 as a full-time lieutenant with the McDowell County Emergency Medical Services. He has put in 25 years as a full-time paramedic and worked as a part-time employee before that, giving him a total of 27 years and four months before July 1.
Bruner grew up in the Cross Mill community of Marion with an interest in one day becoming a paramedic. “When I was little, the show ‘Emergency’ was popular and it kind of lit a fire in me,” he said.
His family had a medical background as well since his sisters Regina and Rebecca worked as nurses. “I was introduced to the medical field early in life,” he said.
After graduating from McDowell High in 1984, Bruner worked at Collins & Aikman in Old Fort for eight years. He then decided to pursue his passion of becoming a paramedic by going through the EMT program at McDowell Technical Community College. He then finished the intermediate program and was hired by EMS Director Carroll Hemphill as a part-time employee.
In a couple of years, he was working as a full-time paramedic. Over the next quarter of a century, he and his fellow paramedics responded to all kinds of calls. Those calls could be anything, such as a family hurt in a car wreck, an elderly person who had fallen in her home alone, a man suffering from cardiac arrest or a worker accidentally injured on the job. It could be someone who had been wounded or suffering from an overdose.
During the Blizzard of 1993, he worked for 40 hours straight. “We were out the whole deal,” he said. “The biggest challenge was not being able to move.”
At that time, McDowell EMS had only two four-wheel-drive ambulances for the whole county. It took Bruner and his partner four hours just to get from Marion to Old Fort in the historic blizzard. They had to respond to a call on Bat Cave Road. They were hungry since all the restaurants were shut down and there was no place for them to get something to eat.
During the blizzard, a shelter was established at East McDowell Junior High for those without electricity or heat. Bruner said convincing the elderly to leave their homes and go to that shelter was a big challenge as well.
In more recent years, he has been deployed to help with emergency situations in other counties. These include the Unimin Plant fire in Spruce Pine in 2008 and two hurricane deployments in the eastern part of the state, Floyd in 1999 and Matthew in 2016.
During the Hurricane Matthew deployment, Bruner and other personnel from McDowell EMS were working in Bladen County. They reported to the N.C. Emergency Management Eastern Branch office in Kinston. While there, they got caught up in serious flash flooding as a result of the hurricane.
“It was raining so hard,” said Bruner.
Their vehicle started moving about in the high water and the emergency personnel were faced with the prospect that they might have to be rescued themselves.
“The hand of God got us out of there,” he said. “Then, we went to Bladen County and did some of the best work we’ve ever done.”
Their work with the Matthew deployment consisted of emergency management and making sure everything was being handled smoothly by other agencies.
“We got them back on track,” said Bruner. “A three-man team did a seven-man job.”
When William Kehler took over in August 2007 as the new director of McDowell Emergency Services, Bruner was the first member of the agency to be promoted.
Kehler said Bruner has focused on helping people when they are suffering from STEMI. This is a name for ST-Elevation Myocardial Infarction, a very serious type of heart attack. When a person goes through STEMI, there is a high risk of death or disability and paramedics have to respond very quickly.
“One of the things John was very keen on was the ability to care for critical cardiac patients,” said Kehler.
And those who have survived have never forgotten what John did for them. Kehler said it is humbling to see those grateful patients reunite with Bruner and his partner and express their gratitude.
“During his last years as a full-time paramedic, he encountered a number of patients in cardiac arrest that he and his partner successfully resuscitated,” said Kehler. “John always delivered quality care to the patients and how compassionate he was to the patients and their families.”
The job of a paramedic is very rewarding but also very stressful. Along with the long hours and difficult conditions, first responders sometimes have to deal with the aftermath when an event doesn’t go well. They can have feelings of guilt thinking they didn’t do enough to save someone. They can be haunted by a tragic or violent situation.
Bruner was one of the first with McDowell EMS to conduct critical incident stress debriefings (CISD).
“When there is a bad call, we all come together and talk about it,” he said.
A CISD is used to reduce the suicide rate among first responders. It helps them to deal with so much stress and not being able to process what they just experienced, said Bruner.
Even though he is retired from working full-time, he’s still active and making a difference. He continues as a part-time first responder with the EMS.
On his last day as a full-time employee, Bruner was taken around McDowell County and visited with every fire department, Mission Hospital McDowell and the county garage as kind of a way to say goodbye and thank you to his colleagues. He also got a ride on the Region 1 helicopter from Spartanburg, S.C. The helicopter ride flew him over the county he had served for almost 30 years.
At his retirement party at the Old Fort Depot, Bruner was presented with the Old North State Award by Phil Tate and a plaque by Kehler.
As he looks back on his career, Bruner has one thought he wished to convey.
“All I ever wanted to do was help people and I hope I did,” he said.