By David Strom
You might think that after a freak accident falling 70 feet when trying to trim one of his trees would be enough of an incentive to retire, but then you probably don’t know Dennis Grooms. Fortunately, Grooms managed to survive his 2009 fall. But in the process, he managed to break both legs and had other injuries as well as come out of a multi-day coma and chalk up a three months’ stay in the hospital.
The fall did have one benefit: in his retirement, he was able to step up his volunteer efforts at various disaster deployments, both for the American Red Cross and other relief agencies.
“I am able to do more now that I am retired and get to go on a lot more deployments,” he said.
Before his fall, he worked for the Coast Guard Auxiliary during Hurricane Katrina on a rescue boat finding victims trapped in their houses or in the floodwaters.
“It was an enlightening experience, with all kinds of sad stuff, finding people who couldn’t swim and got stuck in their homes,” he recalls.
Grooms hails from St. Charles and worked for many years in Colorado fighting forest fires before returning home as a volunteer emergency medical technician.
“I like helping and giving back to people less fortunate. It feels good to help others,” he said. “More than 30 years ago, I came across a bad road accident when I was working as a volunteer for the fire department. “I didn’t know what to do first-aid wise. I was lucky that my department could use a state grant to pay for me to attend medic school.”
Ever since then, he has literally been saving lives.
“It is just fun to take care of people and meet their needs,” he said.
His most recent Red Cross deployment was earlier this summer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for a hurricane relief strike team. However, it lasted all of three days, because the hurricane never happened. Was this frustrating? “Not at all, you get used to this and learn that you got to go with the flow and be flexible. Situations change all the time, things are fluid. Part of working on deployments is understanding that the Red Cross will shift resources where they are needed most at any given time.”
One of the things he likes about Red Cross deployments is serving the affected community and its people in need after a disaster has happened, something that isn’t always possible for his volunteer work for other agencies.
“The Red Cross has a lot of team cohesion in its workforce, which is amazing given that it is mostly volunteers.”
It helps that he has worked alongside many of the same team members over the years.
Some of his deployments have been in the Caribbean, including working in the U.S. Virgin Islands and in Puerto Rico supporting various disaster relief efforts there. The differences between working there and on the mainland are that “resources are harder to come to by, because everything has to usually be brought in via plane or boat, so logistics take longer. Also, you must be aware of nationality and customs differences, and be especially sensitive to the various cultures and religions. I try to study up ahead of time, but sometimes there is just a lot of on-the-job training.”
He mentioned one time he was caring for a Navaho Native American in his emergency room and started to remove their jewelry.
“The nurses were telling me this was considered bad luck,” he said.
Another time when he was in the Virgin Islands and he didn’t realize that a large part of the population had vegan diets, information that could have come in handy when he was setting up their meals.
“Both of those were embarrassing!” he recalled.
“A lot of volunteers really get into their job a little too deeply,” he noted. “Sometimes you must be able to go with the flow and adjust, adapt, and overcome any obstacles. You have to be flexible, patient and understand that the clients have all been through a disaster and a lot of the time clients’ emotions and feelings are up and down and it can be challenging times for everyone.”