James ‘Jim’ K. Thompson has led a long life of serving others. Thompson, 79, who grew up in Rock Hill, South Carolina. and currently lives in Blacksburg, is the oldest active paramedic in the state, and a member of the SC EMS Association.

During his senior year of high school, Thompson worked part time at the Rock Hill printing and finishing company, stretching cloth. Instead of taking a Christmas holiday that year, he decided to go to bootcamp in Great Lakes, Illinois, where he had fire training.

“As soon as I graduated,” he said, “I went through six months of radar school in Great Lakes. The next year I joined the SC Naval Reserves.”

He was soon aboard the USS Leahy as a service and air radarman. The USS Leahy was the lead ship of a new class of destroyers in the United States Navy. He’d leave the Reserves in the mid 70s.

In April of 1966, two weeks after coming off active duty, Thompson’s cousin got him a job at Rock Hill Celanese Plant, a local acetate yarn producer. There, he joined the fire brigade as a paramedic. “All Celanese plants had a fire brigade with a fire truck, ambulance, and an emergency room with a nurse on staff, because they dealt with chemicals such as formaldehyde,” he said. Thompson stayed there for 11 years.

During that time, he joined the volunteer Rock Hill Rescue Squad, where he was a part-time ambulance driver and attendant. In 1971 he attended the first EMT class held at York Technical College. In 1977 he became an EMT instructor there. Today, he is one of the only surviving members in the state of that first class, and the only one still active. In 1980 he joined the SC Army National Guard as a medic for the 2/263rd Armor Battalion.

In the early 1980s, Thompson met Emergency Room Nurse Shirley Leagon while working part time at Cherokee Medical Center as a paramedic. “We were both working there, and one morning after a long shift, as we walked to our cars, I asked her on a date, and she said yes.” They were married in 1986, remaining married until her death in 2022.

The following year, while still working full time as assistant shift supervisor for Piedmont EMS, he worked for a fixed wing air ambulance service for York General Hospital at Piedmont Medical Center. He worked 24-hour shifts as a paramedic, with two days off in between. On those days he would fly for the ambulance service.

The planes flew out of Charlotte. Some of the most unforgettable experiences for Thompson were treating and transporting burn victims.

“We’d fly serious burn victims from South Carolina to a burn center in Augusta, Georgia,” he recalled. “But the worst ones would be flown to Galveston, Texas, where they offered pigskin grafting for them.”

His team also flew Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) babies. “We’d sometimes lose the baby in transit,” he recalled. “I would never cover the babies’ faces with blankets because I was not ready to give up on them, which encouraged the others on my team to follow suit.”

From 1990 to 1993, he served as executive director for the Piedmont Medical Air Transport. While still with the Army National Guard, he transferred to the 1259th Air Ambulance Company stationed at McEntire Joint National Guard Base. “I flew as a medic on the helicopter. We flew to all the bases in the south.”

From 1990 to 2014 he worked at Charlotte Motor Speedway as a fire and EMS first responder, and Darlington Racetrack as its EMS director. He ended up teaching medical, fire, and extraction at both tracks.

“I’ve always wanted to be like my big brother,” said Jerry Thompson, 72, who lives in Hartsville, about 100 miles southeast of Jim. “He’s been one of my heroes since I could remember.” Jerry and Jim worked together at Darlington Racetrack. “I was security there, and he was EMS. He made it fun. He’s an amazing character. He would save my life if he needed to. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that cares so much about people. He’s one of kind.”

“I don’t know anyone other than Jim who is so dedicated to teaching EMS,” said Ronald Green, former EMS director at Piedmont Medical Center. “I can’t tell you how much he’s appreciated.”

His current EMS director, Eric Holder, agreed. “He has dedicated his life to the betterment of others. He’s had both a direct and indirect effect on peoples’ lives.”

Memorable Calls

“One of the most emotional times for me were when we’d respond to a church,” Jim Thompson said, “because during the call the person was usually surrounded by family, friends, and the clergy, who would pray for them.”

Thompson added that being able to deliver babies was also always memorable. “But the most emotional thing in my whole life,” he said, “was being able to deliver my own daughter, Kaylee, in 1990. The doctor that was going to deliver her recognized me from my time at Piedmont and told me that I was going to deliver my own baby girl. I still think about that today.”

In 2020, Thompson was awarded the McBride Lifetime Achievement Award for 50 years of service to the state of South Carolina.

He currently is a paramedic for the Cherokee-Kings Creek Volunteer Fire Department in Union County. He supplies AEDs for firetrucks and in churches from his own pocket. He still teaches in the field, and has even led a canine first aid class. “I still enjoy teaching.”

He is also a member of South Carolina First Responder Assistance and Support Team (SC FAST), which includes First Responders, EMS, Public Safety and 911 operators who are trained to guide other first responders.

What advice would Thompson give a young person today? “Listen to your mentors, and learn from them,” he said. “And it’s so important for the mentors to teach the young.”

– Submitted by Tommy Harmon