Valerie White, an emergency medical technician for Community Ambulance in Sayville, had just picked up a patient and was doing paperwork in the back of the ambulance as it traveled down Sunrise Highway toward a hospital on a Sunday in April. It wasn't her regular volunteer shift, but she was helping out.
The patient, a woman described by White as mentally unstable, was strapped into the gurney. The ambulance was going about 65 mph when White heard "click, click, click." The woman had unfastened the gurney belts and was headed for the back door.
That was the start of an incident that ended with White being awarded the EMS Provider of the Year Award at the 138th annual Firemen's Association of the State of New York. She is the first woman to win either the EMS Provider of the Year or Firefighter of the Year award in the 55 years the association has given the awards, and the only nonfirefighter to win.
Recalling the event Wednesday at the annual convention at the Hyatt Regency Wind Watch Hotel on Motor Parkway, White said she jumped up, braced her right foot against the back of the gurney's wheel, grabbed the woman by her shirt, and yelled for the driver to stop.
"She threw a few punches at me," White said. The woman continued to hit White and struggled to jump out of the now-stopped ambulance.
"I was trying to calm her down, but she was getting more agitated," White said. "That's when she fled."
As the driver called police, the woman jumped out. White again grabbed the woman by her shirt, but the woman fought back and tried to throw White into oncoming traffic. The patient wrestled out of her shirt and darted across Sunrise Highway.
Police were able to find and subdue the woman and get her to the hospital. But White's actions kept the woman from injury by jumping out of a moving vehicle.
"When I told my mother I won the award, she said, 'Congratulations, but don't do it again,' " White told the crowd as she was given her Medal of Valor and plaque.
A volunteer with Community Ambulance since 2007, taking a 12-hour shift Monday evening to Tuesday morning, White said volunteer work is a big-time commitment, but "it's a rewarding experience."
The 138th annual convention, held on Long Island for the first time since 1999, brought 700 volunteers and their families from all over the state. It will continue for three days with seminars and a presentation for children.
The firefighter of the year award was given to three Verona Fire Department members - Kevin Oatman, Aldo Cacciotti and Jeff Hugunine - for saving a woman trapped in a burning house.