2015-03-06 / Community

A Window on the Past

Follow up: early ambulance service
By Craig H. Skelton
South Portland Historical Society

A 1947 Chrysler used by Hobbs Funeral Home as both a hearse and ambulance. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Hobbs, Hobbs Funeral Home) A 1947 Chrysler used by Hobbs Funeral Home as both a hearse and ambulance. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Hobbs, Hobbs Funeral Home) The phone rang in my home a couple days after the “Early Ambulance Service” article ran in the Sentry a few weeks ago. It was a familiar voice as the person calling had been my doctor growing up. Now retired, Dr. Harris Hinckley is pretty well known in South Portland.

We had a pleasant conversation in which he shared a few of his experiences with local ambulance service. He started his career at Maine General in 1951 and remembered the old Packard ambulance mentioned in the story. He told me it wasn’t uncommon for a doctor such as himself to be called out to someone’s home only to find that the medical attention needed was more serious than could be dealt with during a simple house call.

Ambulance response in those cases was extremely slow because the driver was often an employee of the funeral home who had to be called at their home and rousted out of bed, only to then have to drive to the funeral parlor to get the ambulance.

He remembered one house call he made on a New Year’s Eve when his patient was having symptoms of a heart attack. The city had replaced that old Packard with an Oldsmobile Vista Wagon. He climbed in the back with his patient who went into cardiac arrest during the trip. The ceiling in the Vista Wagon was so low that he could hardly do chest compressions and was banging his head. Dr. Hinckley is a rather tall man, so you can appreciate his frustration that the Oldsmobile wagon was really not a suitable ambulance when extraordinary measures were necessary.

He told me of another incident that illustrates how ill prepared folks were in those days. He got a call that someone had collapsed at a baseball field in Pond Cove. He had recently purchased a red Porsche that he says he did about 80 miles per hour down the road in trying to get to the field. When he arrived, there were a couple firefighters and a police officer who really didn’t know what to do other than look at the person lying on the ground. The training today and abilities of first responders is incredible.

Craig Skelton is a guest columnist and member of South Portland Historical Society.

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