Helping is more than just a job

Sandy Miller’s last shift on the ambulance had ended just a few hours earlier. Her next shift would start soon.

It was just after sunrise on a Saturday in March, and, instead of sleeping, the 51-year-old paramedic was knocking on a door while holding a brightly striped gift bag.

“EMT!” shouted Miller, auburn-haired and just taller than 5-foot-2. An elderly, frail woman opened the door.

“Remember I told you I was going to give you some information about how to get your medicine?” Miller asked in a soft voice.

The woman nodded, then studied the photocopied brochures and looked through the rest of the bag, seeing a chocolate Easter bunny, soap, a toothbrush and a few other items.

“I don’t need you to sign anything,” Miller said. “We’re going to seal it with a hug, though.”

The door shut and, hug given, Miller removed her glasses on the walk back to her car and swiped at the tears in her eyes.

Professionally, Miller cares for the sick and injured as a unit commander with East Baton Rouge Parish Emergency Medical Services. But away from the firehouse and ambulance, she continues, handing out hamburgers and gift bags to the homeless, raising money for a sick co-worker or taking care of an elderly man she happened to meet.

“It’s all about caring, and she does a good job of it,” said Fred Russell, a former Baker city councilman who worked with Miller on a fundraiser last year.

Twelve years into a profession well known for its burnout rate, Miller’s energy level is admired by young paramedics.

“She’s always go, go, go,” said Alexis Haynes, who served under Miller for two years in the Explorer Post, a Boy Scout-like organization sponsored by East Baton Rouge Parish EMS.

“She never sits still more than five seconds. She’s always doing something, which is good because she channels it in a good direction,” Haynes said.

When she was 5 or 6, Miller said, she saw a car wreck near her New Iberia house, and the paramedics who rushed to the scene to help impressed her. In high school, she planned vaguely on becoming a social worker, looking for a job helping people.

She married, then raised her two sons in her hometown and always found stray animals in need of food or shelter.

Children were always hanging around Miller’s house, said her sister, Michelle McDonald. Miller put less emphasis on some of the things that consumed others, such as having a perfect-looking home, McDonald said.

“She was more about life,” McDonald said. “She had her priorities straight.”

In her late 30s, divorced and with her two sons raised, Miller went back to school at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and eventually enrolled in the emergency medical technician program.

At her training’s end, Miller rode along with East Baton Rouge Parish paramedics for three shifts and decided she wanted to join their hectic world professionally.

“To be out with the people is the greatest reward you can get,” she said. “And you meet a lot of interesting people when you’re out there, people you can help later.”

Every morning at 5:15, Miller meets one of those interesting people — 96-year-old William LeBeau. He waits at the kitchen door for her and they have a few minutes of conversation and coffee.

In the afternoons, she brings groceries or calls to make sure he is OK. She washes his dishes and, every year, fertilizes his lawn. LeBeau is not Miller’s relative. And his house is not on her direct route to or from work.

“He’s just a good person,” she said. “Everybody needs someone and he’s just one of those people who did, and he ended up in my parking lot. ... I think it was destiny. I do.”

Miller met LeBeau on a hot summer day four years ago when he pulled his Buick into the fire station where she worked because of a flat. She talked with the widowed LeBeau and decided he needed someone to watch out for him and stop him from driving.

“Sandy is a wonderful person,” LeBeau said, seated at his kitchen table. “They only come around like that every once in a while.”

Three photos of Miller decorate LeBeau’s refrigerator along with pictures of his family and his beloved dog. If LeBeau takes a fall, Miller stays at his house for a few days until he can get around again.

“I would miss her plenty if I miss (seeing) her,” LeBeau said, pointing to his heart. “She means a lot to me.”

While her commitment to LeBeau impresses some friends and family, the care she gave to her ex-husband astounded many. Last year Miller’s ex-husband in New Iberia died of cancer.

When she learned how sick he was, she drove there continuously to care for him, clean his house and take him to doctor’s appointments, McDonald said.

“There was nothing for her to gain by this,” McDonald said. “There was no possibility of personal gain. She was driving back and forth on her dime, doing her best to take care of him.”

Since becoming a paramedic “late in life,” Miller said, she has thrown herself into the career, not only becoming an adviser to the Explorer Post, but joining the tactical medic team, a group of paramedics who are embedded with the city, parish and state police SWAT teams. In 2008, four years into her career, her colleagues voted her Paramedic of the Year.

Advising the Explorer Post, she trains teenagers to become first responders who assist paramedics. Each summer they spend six weeks at Camp Avondale, the Boy Scout camp near Clinton, where they run a medicine lodge for sick and injured campers. And, during the summer, Miller drives in from Clinton a few times a week to meet LeBeau for coffee before everyone else awakes.

She also recruits Explorers for work at homeless shelters and commits them to clean up yards for people she meets through her routes.

“She is a very, very big ball of energy,” Haynes said. “She’s never tired. I question her every day why she’s never tired.”

A professional paramedic for just a few months, Haynes still calls Miller for advice. Haynes’ second night riding the ambulance as a teenage Explorer, they responded to a patient suffering a cardiac arrest. Afterward, when Haynes cried, Miller sat down and “coached” her through it.

“She’s basically my mom on the truck,” Haynes said.

Miller admits that at times she gets headstrong and very protective of patients she meets on the job, which has led to occasional confrontations.

“Does everybody like me?” she said. “No.”

Miller is outspoken, and she says she has “high standards.”

“She can be very meticulous,” explained Mark Olson, the EMS public information officer.

Outside of work and caring for others, Miller has few hobbies. She says she loves yard work and gardening, but even trimming her hedges gives her an opportunity to check on a neighbor she said needs looking after.

“There’s a lot of people out there who need help, who need just a little assistance at one point in time, and it’s not monetary,” Miller said. “It’s of a personal nature.”

Through all this, Miller’s sleep schedule suffers the most, said McDonald, who lives at Miller’s home in Central. But Miller said she worries that if she does not help some people, then no one else will.

“Sometimes I just want to sleep, but that’s not going to happen,” she said. “There is too much more to do.”