There’s something inherently special about the Island of Ocracoke.
Its charming four-square mile village — which boasts tree-lined streets and 1880s architecture — is surrounded by 12 miles of mostly untouched beaches, which is under the protection of the National Park Service.
There’s no wonder why the allure of this small island — which is accessible only by water and private plane — beckons travelers who desire to escape from everything, to unwind and experience sheer relaxation.
To many, like Kitty Hawk residents Eleanor and Richard Lee, the enchanting 16-mile stretch of land is paradise found.
In some cases, that same isolation craved by those who visit the small island can be problematic when the weight of a genuine emergency is brought to bear.
Not so on Ocracoke.
On June 25, the Lees traveled to Ocracoke with a bottle of bubbly and their beloved Shih Tzu in tow — to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary at the Anchorage Inn & Marina, a 35-room hotel located on Silver Lake Harbor.
Two days later, they would discover that being on one of the most remote spots on the Outer Banks — where the year-round population numbers less than 1,000 — doesn’t mean you’re on your own, even if you don’t know a soul.
Their celebration came to an abrupt stop when Richard Lee suffered a medical emergency while at the inn. Eleanor Lee watched as Ocracoke’s emergency management community — Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department’s Sandy Yeatts and Micah Bassell; paramedics Dana Long and David White; and Hyde County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Jason Daniels — descended on the Anchorage Inn.
As her high school sweetheart was being medevaced off the island to Greenville, North Carolina, more than 200 miles away, Sherry Atkinson, innkeeper at the Anchorage Inn, helped Lee pack her things and arranged for a pet-friendly room at a hotel in Greenville. Daniels contacted the ferry terminal and arranged for priority boarding, and he provided Lee with the phone number of his parents, who live near Greenville, in case she needed a shoulder to lean on when she arrived.
At a traumatic moment in her life, rather than feeling alone, adrift and rudderless, Lee says, she felt as if “the island itself had embraced her.”
‘An island of angels’
Hyde County Emergency Responder Dana Long says for privacy reasons, she’s unable to provide details about the nature of the call, except to say, “this was a true medical emergency.”
“On Ocracoke, the closest facility is a 2.5- to 3.5-hour drive, including a one hour ferry ride, and that is not always the most appropriate facility for certain patients,” Long says. “With the assistance from Vidant-Eastcare (medevac), we can get patients to where there may be specialized services, such as trauma center, PCI facility, or stroke centers. In the best interest of this patient, the EMS crew decided it was best to get this patient to a specialized center.”
It happens more often than anyone in the island’s emergency management community would like to see, says Capt. Jason Daniels of the Hyde County Sheriff’s Office.
“We do a lot of calls like that; more than you might expect: heart attacks, drownings, medical emergencies of other natures,” says Daniels, who works alongside Hyde County Deputy Rob King and Hyde County Cpl. Blackburn Warner, the latter an Ocracoke native.
“When something like that happens, everyone comes together. We try to be as compassionate as we can and get the job done. It’s who we are.”
In a big city, emergency response teams might appear to be more clinical and detached on-scene, but appearances can be deceiving, he says.
“If you don’t get a soft heart and aren’t compassionate about situations like that, you don’t need to be working in community service.”
Still, there is a singular difference between working in the field in a metropolitan community and a village of less than 1,000 year-round residents — and in the case of Ocracoke, it’s the equivalent of living in the fictional sleepy town of Mayberry.
Like Mayberry Sheriff Andy Taylor — who gave stature to small town law enforcement — Daniels has opened the home he shares with his wife Jennifer and two children, Jacob and Jonah, on more than one occasion to tourists who find themselves in a moment of crisis.
In one case, a couple with an infant visiting the island missed the ferry, so they stayed with the Daniels family.
“I’m a church-going person, and I feel I’m where I’m supposed to be,” says Daniels, who has lived on the island for 16 years. “I want to be able to positively impact the lives of others — and this community, and the people who live here, have allowed me to do that.”
Daniels says he’s not alone in his actions. The National Park Service rangers on the island — Corey Cutright, and Ed Fuller and Shane Bryan, the latter both former deputies with the Hyde County Sheriff’s Department on Ocracoke — have all stepped up to assist visitors, as have his deputies.
“I get letters all the time from visitors who write to tell me how wonderful these two boys are. They go above and beyond a lot of days,” he says. “We sometimes have to write tickets, but there’s a whole lot more to the job than riding up and down Highway 12 writing tickets.”
The same can be said of Long, who once opened her home to three children, ages 7- to 14, after she responded to a call at a hotel where the children and parents were staying. The father was pronounced dead at the scene.
“While speaking with their mother, I offered to take the children home with me, and Capt. Daniels offered to stay to help pack their belongings. This mother was so grateful — even through this time of pain, hurt and anger — that she agreed to accept the help offered,” Long says. “This is what we do on Ocracoke: Everyone is family.”
Sherry Atkinson, innkeeper at the Anchorage Inn & Marina, says Long is as compassionate as they come — and had she been in Eleanor Lee’s position, she can’t think of anyone she’d rather have by her side.
“I told Mrs. Lee, ‘Listen: If something was wrong with me, and I opened my eyes and saw Dana and these other people standing over me, I’d be feeling a whole lot better about things.’”
As Richard Lee was loaded into the ambulance, Atkinson says, Long held his hand.
“He looked up at her and said, ‘If I don’t make it, please tell my wife how much I loved her.’ Well, us being the people we are, it just about broke our hearts,” Atkinson says. “There was so much love with that man when he got in the helicopter.”
Atkinson has spoken to Eleanor Lee several times since the incident, and says, “He was released from the hospital on July 28, their anniversary, and he’s doing OK.”
Lee says in her most agonizing moments, three strangers rallied around her and made her feel as if she was surrounded by family.
“We were touched by the response, the care and the follow-up from amazing individuals. They touched us in a very special way when we both needed it,” Lee says. “Ocracoke and the residents we have had the pleasure of meeting have definitely illustrated the big heart that beats on the tiny island. It’s an island of angels.”