NMMC honors Saltillo’s Mears as first ambulance director

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NMMC President and NMHS Chief Operating Officer David Wilson, left, chats with Bill Mears and his wife, Helen. Mears, now 94, was the first director of the NMMC Ambulance Service in 1968. NMMC recognized Mears’ service on Wednesday at the NMMC Emergency Response Center. (NMMC/Michaela Morris)

TUPELO, Mississippi— North Mississippi Medical Center-Tupelo’s first ambulance director Bill Mears now has a permanent presence in the hospital’s Emergency Response Center.

With the 94-year-old Saltillo resident, his family and friends on hand, North Mississippi Ground Ambulance Emergency Medical Services Director Dennis Hebner unveiled two plaques Wednesday during an event outside the NMMC Emergency Response Center. One plaque was given to the Mears family. The second plaque will hang in the Emergency Response Center.

“Mr. Mears helped create an enduring legacy for the NMMC ambulance service,” Hebner said. “While the technology and the tools have changed since 1968, our dedication to responding to medical emergencies quickly with compassion and professionalism has not.” 

Mears and his family said they were touched by Wednesday’s recognition.

NMMC/Michaela Morris

“It’s a highlight to come down and meet the people who followed me,” Mears said.

Mears, a Lee County native and Korean War veteran, returned home in 1967 after a 21-year career as an Air Force medic. He joined the NMMC staff to create an ambulance service.

Up to that point, two funeral homes handled patient transportation, but changes to wage and hour laws made the practice cost-prohibitive, according to a 1968 Daily Journal article. The Lee County Board of Supervisors and the Tupelo Board of Aldermen had turned to the hospital as the organization most able to operate an ambulance service efficiently.

To prepare for the service, the new ambulance staff went through a range of training including good grooming and human relations, first aid, traffic safety, emergency childbirth, management of disturbed and unruly patients, and use of oxygen equipment and portable resuscitator, according to the newspaper article. They went through practice sessions in Jackson and Memphis.

The original ambulances were locally purchased station wagons with the seats removed and mounts added for stretchers. There were no seats for the medics to use while caring for patients, Mears recounted.

“We got on our knees while we were working with patients,” he said.

The ambulance staff gave Mears a tour of the newest ambulance in the NMMC fleet and an opportunity to load and unload the power-assisted stretcher Wednesday.

“That’s high class,” Mears said. 

Mears remained with the hospital for several years. In 1974, he joined the staff of the newly opened FMC plant near his Saltillo home, where he served as medic and assisted with health insurance, until he retired in 1989.

Mears and his wife, Helen, will celebrate their 70th anniversary in December. They have two children, Tony Mears and Marilee Jaggars, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He is part of a Burnt Offerings coffee group that meets regularly at Faith Baptist Church in Saltillo. Members of that group joined the family at Wednesday’s recognition.

“We’re very proud of all he accomplished,” Jaggars said of her father.

NMMC Paramedic Jason Clark, left, and North Mississippi Ground Ambulance EMS Director Dennis Hebner give Bill Mears, the hospital’s first ambulance director, an insider’s view of a modern ambulance. Mears, now 94, was recognized Wednesday for his work in establishing the ambulance service in 1968. (NMMC/Michaela Morris)