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In Va., pink ambulances aim to raise breast cancer awareness

"Miss Vicki" adorns a pink Medical Transport ambulance

"Miss Vicki" adorns a pink Medical Transport ambulance designed to raise awareness of breast cancer. Credit: The Virginian-Pilot / TNS/Jonathon Gruenke

The strawberry-pink Sentara ambulances travel along Hampton Roads in Virginia with a life-saving wish from "Miss Vicki" Prescott: that more women like her get an early fight against cancer.

"Prevention, prevention," she said one recent sunny morning outside her recreational-vehicle home in Virginia Beach. "I’ve been very lucky."

In October 1993, Prescott was doing situps with her feet beneath a couch when a sharp pain shot through her chest. Then she felt a lump. She thought she’d only pulled a muscle but went to her gynecologist just to be safe. It turned out to be breast cancer, and doctors said her quick reaction saved her.

More than a decade later, her survival story inspired her co-workers at Medical Transport LLC to deck out one of the company’s ambulances in her honor. They used the color pink — synonymous with the international movement for breast cancer awareness — and adorned it with her name.

Now 71, Prescott has been enjoying retirement at a sleepy RV campground for the past five years, doting over her teenage grandson and her Maltese-poodle mix, Roxie.

A powerful message

Her namesake truck made many appearances at community events and transported more than 30,000 patients locally before Sentara shipped it six years ago to a charity in the Bahamas, where breast cancer rates vastly outpace those in the United States. Another truck was later outfitted in Prescott’s honor along with at least three others, which were named after women who died from the disease.

Clayres Johnson, who helps breast cancer patients at the Sentara Brock Cancer Center in Norfolk, said the ambulances send a powerful message for women in need of mammograms, especially through the coronavirus pandemic when it’s hard to raise awareness with community events. Testing rates often soar in October, when breast cancer awareness campaigns are at their height, infiltrating everything from football games to city council meetings.

"It’s because they’re seeing pink everywhere. Everywhere you turn: pink, pink, pink. You turn on sports, it’s pink," Johnson said. "It triggers them, like, ‘Ah man, I need to go get my mammogram.’"

Medical Transport eventually decorated another truck in honor of Anthony "PeeWee" Wilson, an operations manager and diabetes survivor. That vehicle is painted with American Diabetes Association livery, which employees hope will send a message for people who are predisposed to diabetes and hypertension.

"We try to bring awareness, education and advocacy," Wilson said. "If I can just make a difference in one person’s life, then my job is done."

'It meant a lot'

A subsidiary of Sentara Healthcare that runs about 45 ambulances in the region, Medical Transport mostly carries out nonemergency, scheduled trips for patients too sick or weak to ride in a car to medical providers.

Prescott, who started working there in 1992 and retired in 2015, sometimes sees a pink one travel to and from Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital near her campground.

She reminisced over the day her co-workers surprised her with the first one in the late 2000s — she can’t recall the exact date, with most of her old documents in storage since retirement.

At the time, a colorful ambulance was novel, and passersby would call dispatchers to ask about it.

"They had it in the parking lot. They called me out, and there it was, with ‘Miss Vicki,’" she said, smiling. "It meant a lot they would think that highly of me to do something like that."

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