02/03/10 — O'Berry staff members earn award from state for actions

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O'Berry staff members earn award from state for actions

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on February 3, 2010 1:46 PM

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Mary Garner, left, and Versa Stevens, health care technicians at O'Berry Neuro-Medical Treatment Center, were recently presented with the Governor's Award for Excellence for Safety and Heroism, the highest honor a state employee can receive.

When a fire broke out late one night in O'Berry's Cluster 6, two health care technicians acted quickly to evacuate 10 men living in the group home.

They were just doing their job, they say now. Recognition for bravery and being heroes was not even a consideration.

The state did not see it that way, and last month recognized the two women with the Governor's Award for Excellence for Safety and Heroism.

Mary Garner retired in August from O'Berry Neuro-Medical Treatment Center after nearly 25 years of service. Her co-worker Versa Stevens has worked there part-time for five years and for the past nine years has been full-time.

But on the night of Dec. 15, 2008, they were two co-workers doing what they always did -- serving as caregivers for a group of profoundly mentally retarded and several disabled individuals.

"I was sitting there folding clothes," said Ms. Garner. "I smelled an odor but it didn't smell like anything burning."

Investigating further, she opened the door to the laundry room, where she discovered the dryer was on fire.

"It was in flames," she said. "I just closed the door and went out, walked back and started getting people out. It was smoking up then."

Ms. Stevens also responded quickly to the situation.

"I called the AOD (administrator on duty) and told him that the dryer was on fire and we were getting the guys out," she said.

The whole process was done in a matter of minutes, officials said.

"They did it very quickly, very finely, they got everybody out very fast," said Lisa Ruggery, quality assurance officer at O'Berry.

Not that there weren't obstacles -- the sprinklers had started going off inside the structure, temperatures outside were around 28 degrees.

Fortunately, the wait time was brief, about five minutes, before staff could secure coats, hats and shoes for the men, who were then transported to another group home overnight.

A crew cleaned up the building, which sustained smoke, fire and water damage.

But at no time did the ladies anticipate recognition for their teamwork in a crisis.

"I felt it was the right thing to do and we were responsible for the clients," Ms. Garner said.

Some of what they did was just common sense, Ms. Stevens said.

"Training prepares you for stuff like this," Ms. Garner said.

At the center, fire drills are done for every shift once a month, Ms. Ruggery said. Even so, when it comes to an actual emergency, the outcome can be unpredictable.

"They were extraordinarily calm regardless of the circumstances, and efficient," she said.

Staff at the Center nominated the two women for the annual Governor's Award, the highest honor a state employee can receive. The award program is designed to acknowledge and express appreciation for outstanding accomplishments that don't fall entirely within the scope of normal duties.

Only 10 awards were given this year, in the areas of human relations, outstanding government service, public service and safety and heroism.

The announcement came as a surprise to the women, who were notified beforehand by letter. The presentation ceremony, held last month in Raleigh, was also a special occasion.

The recipients got to meet Gov. Beverly Perdue, received a framed award and heard glowing comments about their service to the clients at O'Berry.

"It made me feel good," Ms. Garner said.

"It was nice," Ms. Stevens added. "My mom was more excited than I was."

The state's Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Lanier Cansler called their actions "a shining example of the professionalism and quality of care that marks the majority of people who work in our facilities every day providing a safe and secure environment for those people entrusted in our care."

O'Berry Director Deborah Exum praised the women's dedication to their residents' care during the smooth and safe evacuation.

"Versa Stevens and Mary Garner are terrific examples of the talented and dedicated staff we have here at O'Berry," she said. "We are very proud of them and the example they set for all of us."