By Lyra Bordelon
This week, Judith Bland is picking up the pieces. She is an emergency room nurse at Greenbrier Valley Medical Center who contracted COVID-19 but is now mostly physically recovered, however, the disease left a lasting impact on her family.
Her husband, Gary Bland, passed away as a result of COVID-19 in November. Mr. Bland, also known throughout Greenbrier County as P Nut, was a staple of the emergency response community, having worked in nearly every role short of emergency room doctor over his 40 years of service in the community.
“COVID took my husband in 13 days,” said Mrs. Bland. “He struggled for breath from day one. … I didn’t get to see him, physically touch him until Thursday morning. They intubated him Wednesday night. He was intubated but at least I was in the room. We were transporting him to Raleigh General and he passed away on the trip. He didn’t make it to Dawson. It’s still so unbelievable.”
Having recently retired from Greenbrier County Emergency Ambulance, coworker Sheila Williamson explained, “He was a CPR instructor, he was a 911 dispatcher, he did security, he was a DJ, he DJ’d kids parties and at the nursing home. He was a director of the Greenbrier County Red Cross for a while. … He was very close to two of his uncles – James, but they call him Purdy, and his uncle Jerry. Both of them he did security with.”
“He had a lot of jobs, he didn’t do just one thing,” Mrs. Bland said. “He detailed cars, he was a DJ, he was a municipal judge of Ronceverte. He also, of course, did security, he loved doing security at the Fairgrounds, anything to do with the Fairgrounds he absolutely loved.”
The Blands were annual attendees of the Greenbrier County Parade of Lights, a memorial to 9/11 and fallen emergency responders across the country. After attending this year’s event, a second parade was held in P Nut’s honor, with approximately 60 vehicles from departments across the county running their lights in his memory.
Set for Sunday, Dec. 6, the Greenbrier County Emergency Ambulance said on social media, “We hope to see the streets lined with cars with people to give Gary one last send off that he deserves. He loved motorcycles and old cars and hotrods, and we’d love to see some lined up on the streets.”
“They had a wonderful memorial parade for P Nut, Gary Bland,” said Ronceverte Mayor David Smith. “That was phenomenal – all the ambulance squads, several fire departments, city police. He’s going to be missed, he really will be.”
In Alderson, one of the lights running across the Alderson Memorial Bridge this year is in honor of Mr. Bland.
“The full red arch is lit in honor of Gary Bland, a former Fairlea fire chief and EMT who has assisted us in Alderson for many, many years,” reads the announcement from Alderson. “It also shows our thanks to the firefighters and EMS providers who are facing unprecedented times.”
Mrs. Bland has now mostly physically recovered from COVID-19, having testing positive before Gary. She noted that she doesn’t know if he contracted the virus through her work, his work, or someone in the public.
“It was just so difficult. I just never thought in my life that he wasn’t gonna make it,” she explained. “I knew the numbers and I knew what his vital signs were, and the nurse part of me knew what it looked like, but the wife part of me said ‘No, he’s going to be okay. He’s going to fight it.’ … I wasn’t allowed to go in the COVID ward. I had tested positive the same day that P Nut did. Once he was on the COVID floor, we pretty much just Facetimed. He couldn’t talk because he was so short of breath. When they moved him to the ICU, I couldn’t even go down there. I had to stand outside the building and look at him through the window. … The patient is so isolated. He was depressed because he couldn’t see anybody. A couple of times I had to reorient him on what day it was because it’s just not a good place.”
On the last two days, however, she was able to be with him in person.
“I’m so lucky I was there from Thursday morning to six o’clock Friday morning. I left the ICU at 4:45 and I went home to pack clothes to meet him at Raleigh General Hospital, where we were transferring him. I talked to him all night, brushed his hair, even though he was intubated I talked to him all the time and I prayed on him. When I left I told him ‘I’m gonna meet you at Raleigh General.’ I said I’ve got to go get my clothes and get a hotel, I’ll meet you there, and I’ll stay there with you until we get over it. He passed in transit, he didn’t make it to Dawson.”
Now back to work in the Emergency Room, Bland is treating people with the same virus that killed her husband.
“The COVID is just so rampant, we get patients in there that show the same things that P Nut had. I still have to do my job but yet it falls back in my mind, thinking about P Nut. It’s very hard. It’s very hard. But I’ve got the support of all my coworkers, they’ll look at me and know. They’ll hug me or say it’s okay to cry or okay to be mad. I’m so mad that all of this has happened. It’s just not right for COVID, a virus, to take away the love of my life. It’s just not right.”
She emphasized the need for the public to take precautions – wear the mask, social distance, and prevent community spread.
“We have to wear the N95s, then a mask over the N95s, and a [face] shield. That’s all in place since the numbers started going up and up and up. It’s just unreal. Some people you wouldn’t think have COVID, have COVID. … We see a lot, we really see a lot. The numbers are just going up and up. Anybody before that we wouldn’t have tested for COVID, we’re testing for COVID. If they have just a cough, it doesn’t matter if they have a fever [or not], we test them for COVID.”
An intense fondness came over Judith each time she said P Nut out loud, laughing as she remembered him urging her to be more patient as they worked together both professionally and at home, doing home improvement projects and gardening.
“He was the love of my life, did I tell you that?” Mrs. Bland said. “I’d never known a man that was just as kind and as generous as he was. … He interviewed me for EMS, me and my sister, and that’s the first time I met him. I said he had the prettiest blue eyes I’ve ever seen. I was hooked. We’d work together, we were just partners for a little while, we were helping each other through different situations in life, and got really close. It just blossomed from there. I thought ‘this could not happen, there is not this nice of a man.’ I just never thought there was a guy out there that was as nice, as real, as he was.”
Noting that he had lived his entire life on Baker Street, Judy Bland once asked how they had never met before their relationship blossomed into a ten-year marriage.
“There’s no way I didn’t see him in passing before we hit it off. I asked, ‘I don’t know how I had never met you before’ and he said, ‘it just wasn’t our time.’ The Lord didn’t put it together until it was the right time for us to meet and I truly believe that.”
Although seemingly fearless and determined in his many roles, Bland did have one fear mentioned by the people who worked with him.
“He was scared to death of snakes. Oh yeah, it was bad enough that it was what everybody ribbed him about all the time.”
When asked about his fear of snakes, Judith laughed and remembered when they moved in together.
“Our relationship blossomed out and I was going to move him with him. My daughter had a bald python. She was in the army, she was away in Afghanistan when we moved in together, and I was going to bring her snake. He wouldn’t have that at all, I wasn’t allowed to bring the snake. The snake stayed with my ex-husband and I brought … a chameleon [my daughter] Katie Hunter bought me. He was okay with the chameleon, but he was scared to death of the snake. I brought an aquarium and he was sure that snake was in that aquarium.”
When asked if she had a message for the Greenbrier Valley community, Mrs. Bland did not hesitate.
“Thirteen days took my husband,” she emphasized. “You need to wear that mask, you need to wash those hands, you need to use that sanitizer, you need to social distance. Don’t go to your mother’s when it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas with your family member from out of state that you haven’t seen for years. It’s a bad idea. If I can help one person to realize it is super dangerous, and it is just a virus, but it can take out your family member in 13 days.”
In a video posted to social media by the Greenbrier County Emergency Ambulance, a call came in over dispatch to emergency responders, announcing Bland’s passing. The dispatcher, voice full of emotion,
“On behalf of Greenbrier County dispatch and emergency responders, it is with great sadness that we announce that EMT Bland has completed his last and final call here on earth. His work is completed and he is cleared to go home. EMT Bland has faithfully served his community for 40 years. We are thankful to him and his family for his sacrifice over the years. He is now with the Lord and he will now be watching over his family, friends, and fellow first responders as they carry on his legacy. He will forever be in our hearts. … Rest easy brother, we will take it from here.”