Middlebury EMTs grant dying patient final wish
MIDDLEBURY — Art Doty knew his time was almost up.
Cancer was spreading through his 83-year-old body.
He was confined to a bed at the University of Vermont Medical Center, a tantalizing two miles from his beloved Lake Champlain, where he’d spent countless hours fishing and sailing.
Those two miles might as well have been 100, Doty thought, given his lack of mobility.
The Brandon resident yearned to see Lake Champlain one last time during a scheduled ambulance trip from UVM Medical Center to Helen Porter Rehabilitation & Nursing in Middlebury, where he would draw his final breaths.
What he received — thanks to Middlebury Regional EMS officials, the crew of The Lake Champlain Ferry and many others — was a gift that sustained Doty during his last days and that his family members will remember for their rest of their lives.
It was in August of 2018 that Art Doty was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It was crushing news, given the typical one-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is 20 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.
Donna Doty, Art’s wife of 60 years, said her husband’s faith allowed him to accept his fate with humility and an open heart. He received the terrible news that his cancer was inoperable while presiding over a Brandon-Leicester-Salisbury-Goshen Insect Control District board meeting.
“He went through the meeting as if nothing had happened,” Donna said.
This is a man who, after all, had planned his own funeral.
“He was a strong, religious person,” Donna said.
And he was also a great family man with a love of the water — especially Lake Champlain. He had spent many years fishing and sailing with his kin and friends on that majestic body of water. He had docked his beloved sailboat, the “Sno-Shoo,” in Charlotte.
“It was a true love for him to be on the water,” said his son, Paul Doty, who had recently taken his dad for one last fishing trip.
Doty, who spent many years in Salisbury before moving to Brandon around nine years ago, saw his health deteriorate this past spring, to a point where he was admitted to UVM Medical Center. It was on Wednesday, June 26, that he was scheduled to ride an MREMS ambulance to Helen Porter, where he would receive hospice care.
Middlebury Regional EMTs Don Sweet and Elizabeth Orr were Doty’s ambulance crew that day. Sweet explained a person had called MREMS headquarters prior to the transport, asking if Doty could be given the “scenic route” during his trip.
Eager to accommodate, Sweet and Orr charted a path that would include a stop in Overlook Park on Spear Street, where Doty would be able to drink in, for the last time, a panoramic view of his precious Lake Champlain.
“He kept calling it ‘his lake,’” Sweet recalled of his initial repartee with Doty. “He loved the lake, had raised his family there and had sailed there.”
Touched by his passion, Sweet and Orr began to think about ways they might further sweeten their charge’s last voyage. And fortunately, the proverbial stars had aligned for the Doty trip. A rare period of calm, in contrast to the customary high volume of emergency calls. Good weather. Compassionate ferry operators willing to take on a passenger with special needs at a moment’s notice.
“We had plenty of people (at MREMS headquarters); it was just one of those days where everything worked out,” Sweet said. “It’s very rare when that happens.”
Sweet learned where Doty’s sailboat had been docked. He and Orr resolved to take him as close as they could to his former sailboat mooring, so they set a course for the Lake Champlain Ferry dock in Charlotte.
“We didn’t tell him we were going,” Sweet said, hoping to preserve the surprise.
Doty was indeed thrilled; but the story only gets better from there.
“While we were there, the ferry was coming in and I asked (the captain) if we could go across,” Sweet said.
The ferry crew gave an enthusiastic thumbs up. Not only did they decline to accept a fare from Doty and the MREMS crew, they gave their frail passenger V.I.P. treatment, including blocking off a spot in the shade to shelter the mobile cot in which he was lying.
“He was overwhelmed; actually he was brought to tears, he was so excited,” Sweet said.
That excitement poured out of him in the form of fond memories and lake history that he shared with his Good Samaritans.
“He talked about his family a lot, about taking them fishing, about how he’d spent a lot of his life on the lake,” Sweet said.
The word “gratitude” doesn’t begin to describe how Doty felt toward his benefactors.
Orr, currently on leave from MREMS, provided a text message summarizing Doty’s thankfulness:
“He was a faithful man,” Orr wrote. “With a ferry ride across his beloved lake, he pointed to the heavens and said how it was a gift from God; only he could give him such a gift.”
At one point, Doty called family members who were waiting for him to arrive at Helen Porter.
“Guess where I am?” he shouted gleefully into his cell phone to his granddaughter Emily. “I’m on the lake!”
“We were all in shock,” Paul Doty said. “We weren’t expecting that at all. Our thoughts go out to MREMS. They went above and beyond.”
In a case of pure serendipity, a former captain of the ferry was on board and recognized Doty. She playfully reminded him how she’d had to blow her horn at him in the past when he’d piloted his sailboat too close to the boat.
She, other ferry staff and the MREMS crew all signed Doty’s admission ticket as a final keepsake for him and his family.
Doty arrived at Helen Porter a happy man. He passed on July 2, coincidentally in the “Lake Champlain” hospice suite.
MREMS officials stressed they aren’t always in a position to grant final wishes to the terminally ill patients they transport. The organization covers 11 communities and responds to approximately 3,000 calls each year. Past goodwill gestures have included stopping at a creemee stand and/or taking a longer scenic route to give the dying patient some precious moments of pleasure and nostalgia.
“MREMS is a private, non-profit organization that is fortunate to have a professional, compassionate and dedicated staff to serve our communities,” said MREMS Executive Director Kate Rothwell. “We occasionally receive special requests that we do our best to fulfill, with staff that is more than willing to go above and beyond.”
It was a truly satisfying assignment for Sweet.
“It’s very rare that we get to make such an impact on someone’s life,” he said. “We usually just prolong the inevitable (when it comes to terminal cases). On the scale of making people better, we sometimes just raise it slightly, and it doesn’t have a lasting effect. This (impact) literally lasted the rest of his life, however short it was.
“I felt that this went deeper than just your typical ‘put some oxygen on somebody, bring them back from the brink of death,’” he added. “This felt so much deeper than that.”
Rothwell described it this way: “You’re doing psychological first aid, rather than medical. That’s just as big.”
After Doty had been laid to rest on July 11, his 10-year-old great-granddaughter Elizabeth retraced her poppa’s voyage on the Lake Champlain Ferry.
“I am on the last ferry boat ride grandpa Doty went on, and it is beautiful now,” she wrote in her journal. “I know why he loved the water so much.”
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.