Gregory remembered as comic, lifesaver, generous
story by Marla Cantrell
Gayla Gregory, the Air-Evac medic who died when a medical helicopter crashed on Aug. 31 in Van Buren County, is being laid to rest today (Sept. 8).
Kenny Meyer, Jr. of Center Ridge, and Kenneth Robertson of Searcy also died in the accident.
Butterfield Assembly of God in Van Buren is already filled with flowers: one spray has Gregory’s name in shiny letters, another is a blue and white EMT shield, dozens of others have cards of condolences pinned on stiff ribbons, the messages turned so everyone can see.
On Tuesday night (Sept. 7) hundreds of friends, family and co-workers gathered to tell the stories of her life. Photos of Gregory, 53, filled two screens placed above the simple silver coffin. Her life clicked by there: school pictures of a tiny girl with short bangs, photos of a woman surrounded by friends, a group picture where she stood atop an ambulance giving the thumbs up sign.
“I’d go to her house almost every day when we were kids and we’d play baseball in her backyard,” Sue Spinas said.
Janie Hanna-Thrift also played at the Gregory house.
“Gayla’s dad had a donkey named Charlie and a buggy-type carriage that we could ride in,” Thrift said. “It makes me so sad because I feel like I lost some of my childhood when she died. As she got older she had tons of new jokes every day. I told her I thought she should be a comedian.”
Gregory’s sister, Inez Nance, said Gayla talked about the danger of her job just three days before her life ended.
“She’d tell us, ‘If I die up there, I’ll die doing what I like, and I’ll go to be with my maker.’ She was a joy to us, but one of the guys she worked with said she could have you lying in the floor in stitches and when that alarm went off everything changed. She was all business. When I think of her two words come to mind – smile and spiritual.”
There are innumerable EMTs with stories about Gregory. She taught the EMS program at Westark, and later when the school was absorbed by the University of Arkansas. Jeff Millican, with Southwest EMS, was her student in 2003.
“I never met anyone like her,” Millican said. “Everyone who met her learned something. … She’d seen everything. She didn’t need a book; she taught from experience. If you needed her, it didn’t matter when, she’d be there. … Even on a flight, she’d always make you laugh. I can’t picture her without that smile.”
Longtime friend Barbara Scott worked with Gregory at Sparks Regional Medical Center in 1978.
“She taught me so much,” Scott said, wiping tears as she spoke. “Be your best and do your best. She lived it, too. She said, ‘Treat the patients just like you would your family.’ And she did it. … She changed the way EMTs were trained, and patients get better care now because of the thousands who trained under her.”
But the biggest lesson Scott learned from Gregory had nothing to do with critical care.
“You make friends,” Scott said, “and then you keep them. We’ve been friends for 30 years. That’s what she taught me.”
Gregory’s partner, Deanna Yates, stood beside a chair with Gregory’s uniform draped across it and a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup tucked in the pants pocket. A pair of black lace-up boots sat beside it, and a helmet nearby, as if Gregory might have laid them out herself, anticipating a call late at night.
“I wish you knew half the people she fed and clothed,” Yates said. “Anybody with an ‘I’m hungry’ sign was getting $20 from Gayla. She did it all the time. She came home a couple of months ago and said, ‘You’re going to kill me. I just bought a girl four tires at Wal-Mart.’ I said, ‘seriously?’ And Gayla said, ‘One was blown out, one was flat, the other two were threadbare. The girl didn’t have any money. I just couldn’t let her go like that.’ It wasn’t that unusual. She did that kind of thing all the time. She was the most generous person I’ve ever met.”