Calm in the Midst of Chaos

A calm presence at the foot of her bed. That’s the first thing Debbie Carpenter remembers when she thinks about the fire that destroyed her home in 2016.

That presences was Darlene Theophilus, a Red Cross volunteer who had been part of the team who supported Debbie and her family as her home burned. They’d done what Red Cross volunteers always do when called to a fire: offered emotional and material support to the survivors.

But Darlene did more. Darlene came – and stayed – in the emergency room. She was there when Debbie woke up. She returned the next day. She was a lifeline in Darlene’s moments of greatest need.

Debbie had known the Red Cross for many years, when she’d been a nurse manager on the transfusion unit at The Ohio State University hospital. The common bond was blood: her patients needed it, and the Red Cross supplied it. Later, she continued to work with the Red Cross when she and a friend were authorized to do in-home transfusions.

“It’s interesting to me that in 40 years of nursing, the Red Cross came full circle to me,” says Debbie.

It all started at 7:30 one morning, when she came downstairs to find her kitchen engulfed in flames. A fireman brought her out of the house; she doesn’t remember that part of it. She woke up at the Knox County Hospital in Mt. Vernon.  She remembers seeing her daughter at the head of her bed and Darlene in a Red Cross vest at the foot of it.

Darlene’s demonstration of concern went above and beyond the call of duty. She offered support at the scene of the fire.  But Darlene went further than that, coming to the emergency room and staying with Debbie until she woke up. The memory of that patient presence at her bedside remains with her, softening the sadness of her losses. Debbie treasures the handmade quilt Darlene gave her, a symbol of the emotional warmth her Red Cross friend provided.

“I was just amazed and grateful. As horrible as the fire was, I always think of her first,” Debbie said.

The experience opened her eyes to a new view of the Red Cross. “It’s more than blood. You guys do wonderful things all around,” Debbie said.

Debbie has been doing some wonderful things herself. She went into her local Red cross office and made a donation. Everyone came out of their offices, she said, thrilled to be able to see in person someone they’d helped. She was part of a documentary Newark High School students made to celebrate the local chapter’s centennial anniversary. Now she plans to return what she received by becoming a Red Cross volunteer herself.

Debbie had so much to think about after the fire. The home she’d promised her deceased father she’d care for, now gone. His two cats, also victims of the fire. Finding and moving into a new home after so many years in a familiar community.

But when she thinks of the fire, it’s always Darlene who comes to mind first. “I just always think there was help at the bottom of my bed, and I will be forever grateful,” she says.

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