Feature Story – Day 4

Purple thumbs and persistence

Shipei Wang hasn’t let up despite a purple thumb and finger earned building decks at the Framing Frenzy. First aid volunteers in red T-shirts bandage and care for volunteers like her at each build site and work to keep them safe. Photo by Angel Pachkowski
Feature Story – Day 4 -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

First aid, safety lessons and serious medical skills come in red T-shirts

By Susan Stevenson


Shipei Wang wore her Habitat for Humanity badge of honor at the Framing Frenzy on the beach in Biloxi.

The 26-year-old from Oakland, Calif., had “slammed it with a hammer while aiming at a nail.” On her right hand, it was her finger and nearby thumb, and “it hurts.” Wang deserves the classic purple thumb award often earned unwillingly by volunteers early in the week, but an honorable step on the path to becoming an experienced Habitat volunteer.

Purple or not, Wang hasn’t stopped working. “I use my left hand,” she explained.

Wayne Priester, director of first aid at the Framing Frenzy site, explained that volunteers work right through discomfort. “They’re champs,” he said.

“They want to go back out to work even when they’ve got real injuries,” agreed Tom Lackey, a paramedic at the first aid tent in Pascagoula. “The last volunteer through probably had a broken wrist, and he wanted to go back out. They’re heartbroken if they can’t.”

Lackey, who is shift supervisor for a two-county EMS system in central Florida, and other medical professionals who staff first aid tents in Gulfport, Biloxi, the Framing Frenzy and Pascagoula, ran down the list of common Habitat build injuries: blisters, splinters, sprains, dust in the eyes, purple thumbs and fingers, small cuts and abrasions, nausea, vomiting or fainting from sun and heat, sunburn and sore muscles.

But the first aid team prepares for a full variety of injures and needs while also working hard to keep volunteers hydrated and safe, said Dr. Jack Geeslin, the medical director of four different EMS services in Florida, and director of the medical team for this and three previous Carter projects. He says his job before and during the project is to “come and make it all work.”

Dr. Geeslin and his teams in their red T-shirts make “house calls,” by golf cart throughout the multiple block areas of the infill housing builds in Biloxi, Pascagoula and Gulfport.

Audra Jants, an R.N. and a paramedic who usually works traumas at a helicopter service, had taken safety lessons to the volunteers, teaching about “acting safely” at the houses.

Hilda McComie, a paramedic also in nursing school, and Sara Esterly, an R.N. from Biloxi, were about to be interviewed when a slightly staggering volunteer arrived. They yelled for Priester and together guided her to a chair.

The volunteer did not want to stop to sit down. “If you faint, you have to come see us,” Priester quietly soothed as he guided her to a lounge chair out of the sun for treatment.

This red team works long days.

“We’re the first ones here and the last ones to leave,” said Bettyanne Reynolds, a paramedic from Inverness, Fla., who is volunteering on her second Carter Work Project.

And volunteers, many using muscles they don’t use at their desks, appreciate even the sunscreen, Band-Aids and over-the-counter painkillers, for aches and pains are the most common malady and part of the shared experience.

As first-time volunteer Dana Winters, also of Inverness, explained, “Motrin has been the drug of choice for the last two days.”

Sandy Weaver, Phillip Jordan and Angel Pachkowski contributed to this article.