When Kennie Collie was a baby in 1991, he was very sick, but Johnston Ambulance Service was there to transport him to the hospital. More than 20 years later, Collie joined the ambulance service himself.
“They’re the reason I’m still alive,” Collie said. “Had they not gotten there when they did and provided the care I needed on the way, I wouldn’t be here talking today.”
But now Johnston Ambulance Service, commonly known as JAS, an ambulance company that provided non-emergency medical transports in 13 counties, has shut down.
JAS parked its ambulances for good on Aug. 31. Founded in Johnston County, JAS was the state’s largest private ambulance service, according to the company’s website, and provided medical transports in the following counties: Johnston, Onslow, Wayne, Durham, Orange, Sampson, Wake, Craven, Pamlico, Jones, Duplin, Wilson and Brunswick.
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News agencies began reporting Wednesday that JAS planned to close, putting about 400 employees out of work. According to those reports, JAS owner Maynard Price said increasing health-care regulation and its accompanying paperwork had put the company in the red.
In particular, Price said, regulation had made it hard for the company to collect the money it was owed.
Price did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Collie, 24, of Zebulon, who worked for JAS as an EMT from August 2014 to June 2015 in Smithfield, said the reports of the company closing don’t tell the whole story.
“JAS was an amazing company when I was with them,” Collie said. “JAS was a family, and they did everything they could to help out Johnston County and all of the other counties it serves ... It was the first company I worked for that actually really took care of their people.”
And even though Collie said he left JAS last year to go back to school, he said he was hurt to see the company close and his former coworkers suffer.
“I can’t go back to Smithfield without getting bombarded with all the memories I have of JAS,” said Collie, describing picnics, surprise birthday parties with cake and Bojangles and Golden Corral breakfasts together.
“There was really that camaraderie, that family atmosphere,” Collie said. “They cared about you when you came in and when you left and after. We all took care of each other and watched out for each other.”
But more than anything, Collie said, JAS looked out for its patients. “The patient care comes first,” he said. “It didn’t matter what was going on, we were going to give them the best level care.”
And that didn’t just include administering medical care and transporting patients. Collie said JAS employees went the extra mile. Collie himself said he decorated his truck for Christmas and would play music for patients “from Smithfield all the way to UNC (Hospitals)” to help them relax.
“I’ve cried with them ... They weren’t just a run number. They were a human. They were someone’s mother or brother or family member they were entrusting us to take care of,” Collie said. “Everyone at JAS did that. They gave them the very best care they could.”
Collie said JAS employees bonded with its regular transport patients and their families.
“You build a rapport with these families,” he said. “Some families would request certain people because they trusted them to take care of their family member. And that was always my philosophy – to treat them like they’re my family and give the same level of care we would want for our family members.”
Sometimes that meant something as simple as holding someone’s hand.
“Holding their hand in that moment sometimes did more than the medical treatments I was giving them,” Collie said. “Just letting them know, ‘It’s OK, I’m going to be with you.’ ”
Collie praised the EMTs, dispatchers, mechanics and administrators at JAS for their dedication.
“I’ve never met people with the passion they have and the sacrifices they make,” he said. “It hurts me that the media is kind of bashing JAS. If you haven’t walked in their shoes and put on that JAS shirt, you don’t know … Everyone’s really heartbroken. We all are. Those are good, honest, hardworking people down there.”
Johnston County officials learned of the company’s decision on Tuesday and immediately began looking to fill the coming gap in medical transports.
JAS was Johnston’s largest provider of non-emergency transports, so losing it won’t be easy to overcome, said Josh Holloman, the county’s chief of emergency medical services.
“We also contract with North State Medical Transport, but we’ve not been contracted with them long” Holloman said on Wednesday. “It really hit us out of the blue. This was a big impact for us.”
Holloman said the county has asked North State to expand in Johnston and won emergency approval from the state to contract temporarily with Samaritan Ambulance Service to fill the gap.
“Usually we have to go through a long process, but we got emergency approval to contract with Samaritan so we would have at least two companies with an expanded reach,” Holloman said.
“The important thing for us is to do everything we can to make sure the citizens who depend on that service will have everything they need,” he added.
Holloman said the county was putting JAS customers in touch with the other providers.
Johnston County had relied on JAS for a long time, Holloman said. “They got their start here in Johnston County,” he said. “Our heart goes out to those employees out of work.”
The county is trying to help those employees, Holloman said, by putting them in touch with North State and Samaritan, “They need to increase their operations here in Johnston County, so we’re forwarding those employees on to them,” he said.
Abbie Bennett: 910-849-2827; @AbbieRBennett