Making a Difference in Patient Care

Making a Difference in Patient Care

On that dusky night years ago, Tony Fernandez is a little boy sitting in the back seat of his parents’ car. They’re driving home from dinner out, and they happen upon a serious accident on the road ahead. His father, a New York City firefighter, pulls over, jumps out and starts helping the victims. 

Tony can’t see what’s happening in the distance. But he remembers feeling proud that his dad could save someone’s life. 

Years later, Tony would save lives himself, working as an emergency medical technician in New York and then training to become a paramedic. Now with a Ph.D. in public health, he works as research director at the EMS Performance Improvement Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. 

As a paramedic on an ambulance, he was able to help patients one at a time, he says. The work he does now impacts the whole field. 

“My father taught me that it is important to make a difference,” Tony says. “That’s how I ended up working on an ambulance. That’s why I’m doing the work I do today.” 

Between 2007 and 2012, The Duke Endowment distributed more than $6 million in grants to strengthen emergency medical services in North Carolina and South Carolina. The funding helped develop data collection systems, advance standards of care for improving EMS outcomes, and supply providers with equipment and training. Using research from the Performance Improvement Center, the grants have led to improved response times, and put life-saving equipment where it’s most needed. 

Tony has been involved since 2010. At the center, he’s one of the numbers guys, knowledgeable about the best ways to launch projects and analyze data. 

“I always did pretty well in math and science, but I never imagined that I would go on to do anything like this,” he says. “When you walk through the door as a paramedic or EMT, you’re walking into someone’s worst day, and you’re there to help. It can be instantly rewarding. But the more I heard about EMS research, the more I saw how turning zeros and ones into answers also can make a difference in patient care and in the lives of the folks who provide it.”  

Tony believes his father would be proud. The veteran firefighter saw his son go to work on an ambulance, graduate as valedictorian of his paramedic class, and become a research fellow at the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians. 

But on Sept. 11, 2001, on Lt. Cruz Fernandez’s day off, his fire station responded to a call at the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Five of his crew members never returned. Lt. Fernandez spent months combing through twisted debris, holding out hope for survivors. The prolonged exposure to toxic dust led to his death in 2006. 

“When you’re small, your dad is already a superhero,” Tony says. “But I saw my dad as a real-life superhero doing his job.” 

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Lin B. Hollowell III
Director of Health Care


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