Tim Hayes Is Still Saving Lives

Since he lost his legs in an accident, former EMT Tim Hayes, along with his wife Susan, has continued to work to save lives. Only now he's behind a podium

Spend some time today with Tim Hayes. You may remember him.

During a January 2003 ice storm, the young paramedic lost both legs in a gruesome wreck. He was helping motorists at an accident scene on Interstate 77 near Davidson. It had already been a winter season of early and unusually severe ice storms that closed roads, downed trees and caused long power outages. His story was the most public of many local stories of suffering, and it captivated the community, playing out in the newspaper and on television news over the weeks that followed.

Today, nearly two years later, Tim Hayes is out of the news, but his story continues. His old life is gone. Without legs, he couldn't be on the streets. And if he couldn't work the streets, Hayes didn't want to work for the Mecklenburg Emergency Medical Service Agency (MEDIC). He retired as a paramedic. He also sees the world differently now. Learning to walk at the same time as your two-year-old daughter will do that to a person. His relationship with his wife, Susan, has evolved as well. Together, the couple is forging a new life for Tim. He might not be riding in ambulances anymore, but Tim Hayes is still working to save lives—physically and spiritually.

Still, despite the role the popular media has cast him in, he refuses to see himself as a hero. He says he's just always been taught to help people. "I grew up a military brat, the oldest kid with a brother and a sister, and we grew up on bases all over the place, including overseas in Japan and Germany," Hayes says. "So we absorbed that emphasis on serving and helping people—and not complaining, when so many people have it worse."

The family settled in Hundred, West Virginia, after his dad retired when Hayes was sixteen. Hayes first trained and volunteered in emergency medical service there in 1986. He passed the professional training in 1993 and was an emergency medical technician (EMT) there and in Charlotte until forced to retire this past April.

Tim and Susan met when she was in nursing school in Davidson County and her cousin, David Bailey, was his partner. She came down to ride in the ambulance as part of her nursing training, on what Tim calls a "knife and gun club" kind of night. Hayes and Bailey answered fourteen calls that shift, including a double homicide.

"I'm still not sure if she liked me, or just liked the way I worked, but she came back three more times!" Hayes says. The couple went on their first non-ambulance date at the Alabama Grill at Concord Mills. They married not long after. The couple's handsome blond youthfulness is still apparent. Tim's just thirty-three, Susan not yet thirty. Teasing and chuckles pepper the sentences they finish for one another. And yet the impression is one of characters more ageless: a pair of pioneers wise and sturdy and tested.

The tests have been numerous. Hayes' physical rehab has been a roller coaster of hope and challenge. In August 2003, equipped with a pair of high-tech, computer-controlled legs, he walked onto the field for the coin toss at a high school football game. The devices cost around $60,000 apiece and are available to only about sixteen people in the country. Sensors in the prosthetics sense foot and toe pressure and make the knees bend. That's important for someone like Hayes, who in rehab lingo describes himself as "bilateral AK"—both legs above the knees.

There have been setbacks, too. Since the crash he's had eight surgeries, six while in the hospital and two more because of bone spurs and other complications. This fall, one of the top prosthetic specialists in the country was in town for a short visit. Tim and Susan spent ten-hour days at rehab facilities for the chance for to work with the specialist. Physical rehab is a series of short goals. Hayes has made it back as far as the short-leg sections. His next goal is to be able to stand at the EMS Expo later this year, at which he is scheduled to give the keynote address.

Like many people in emergency medicine, Hayes has a dark sense of humor. It's helped him get through the relentless physical therapy. "My physical therapist puts me through such agony—and I swear she gets a kick out of watching me suffer," he says. "I know it's not terribly politically correct, but I call her the physical terrorist."

The rehab has not been solely physical. Since the accident the Hayeses have had to move from their townhouse to another home without stairs in Charlotte's University City area. Both of their vehicles now have hand controls, which Tim quickly mastered. And both acknowledge the accident has unquestionably changed the dynamic of their relationship. They cried a lot during the early days and weeks when the medical prospects were uncertain. Somehow they managed to do that crying together, growing closer together rather than farther apart.

"It's kind of spooky the way it's turned out, but I always used to tell Tim that I was going to take care of him whether he wanted me to or not," Susan says. "I was always the nurse, of course. And like most EMTs he didn't take care of himself health wise. He ate junk and fast food all the time, didn't get enough sleep, always hated exercise, while I was the gym person."

 

While Susan's still the nurse, mom, and primary homemaker, Tim is now a disciplined taskmaster in control of his own care, physical-therapy regimen, and health habits. "Tim from the very beginning has taken charge, having the courage and the humor to get us all through it," Susan says. "He has learned to do everything for himself, put himself through huge challenges and pain. It's impossible not to be OK with him the way he is."

During the horrible accident, Hayes never lost consciousness, and he can provide a chilling firsthand account. His ambulance unit had responded to an ice-related pileup off southbound Exit 30, and he'd cleared patients and crew—everyone but himself—beyond the guardrail. A southbound eighteen-wheeler—from a Florida company named, of all things, Rampage Trucking—carrying a full load of steel cable rolls slammed into a Jeep. The Jeep crashed into Hayes, severing his legs.

"It tore up my ambulance, dragged me sixty-four feet, spun back, and hit me again." 

The truck driver was later charged with failing to reduce speed. But Hayes isn't focused on blame. "I always ask EMS people, 'Are you ready?' because really, there is no such thing as a safe scene. At my scene, I had everyone over the guardrail [on the safe side], and I was the only one who got hurt. I'm trying to get people to think."

That's the message Hayes takes on the road in his newest gig—public speaking. He's hit the road in high gear, sharing his story and offering practical advice to strengthen safety and awareness for emergency medical professionals across the country. This past summer he traveled to Raleigh to work toward safer roadways for emergency crews, and he's made trips to EMS and hospital conventions in Connecticut, Wisconsin, Utah, and Atlanta.

The Hayeses are doing more than talking. In gratitude for the outpouring of support they've received, they have created a nonprofit foundation called the Circle of Faith Foundation to raise funds to help other professionals injured on the job. "I've been lucky that my worker's compensation has covered more advanced prosthetics and other care than many amputees and those with other injuries. . . . This is our way of giving back," he says.

The name of the Hayes' foundation is telling. Tim's post-accident work has definite religious underpinnings. The couple doesn't trumpet their faith, but spend any time with them at all and you'll know it's there. When Tim and Susan talk about their personal walk with Jesus, you believe they have one. Tempting as it is to make a country music morality tale of the Hayes' story, that's not the case. Tim's no hell-raiser scared straight—his pre-accident slate is not all that racy. By all accounts, about the worst habit he had to quit since his injuries were the cigarettes he'd never before been able to shake. Like most young guys, he loved hanging with his friends, but wasn't a huge partyer.

Hayes' first three children, Corissa, Leslie, and Timothy III, did come along back when he was scarcely more than a kid himself. Yet they've stayed close, living today with their mom in Concord and also a constant part of Tim, Susan, and baby Kaitland's home and family life. And Hayes is serious enough about religion that he was baptized at age twenty. "This is God's doing; I believe completely that I was put on this earth for the purpose of using my experience to help people," Hayes says.

Susan adds that their experience has honed their priorities into acute focus. As relative newlyweds, Tim and Susan had been visiting churches around the time of the accident. They are now regulars at King's Way Baptist church near Concord Mills mall. When the doors open for Wednesday and Sunday services, Tim is usually there as a greeter. "[It]'s a reflection of the kind of person Tim is that he was just astonished the first few times he shared his story, and people contributed money," says King's Way's associate pastor, the Rev. David Snow. "Tim is an inspiration to me, and to so many of us."

Hayes insists his rehab is far from complete, and he has plans for himself beyond public speaking and raising money for their foundation. "Do you know what his big fantasy next-move is?" Susan asks. "He wants to be a race car driver—to have the chance to drive around the track in a race… Can you believe that? Oh, noooooo."

Tish Signet does freelance public relations and is a freelance writer in the Lake Norman area. She wrote the cover story on lake living for the April issue of this magazine. Interested in helping or contributing to Tim and Susan Hayes' nonprofit Circle of Faith Foundation? Check out their Web site at www.timhayes.org and the foundation at circleoffaith@timhayes.org.

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