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Round Island's first responder: Doc Withington

Julia Botero
Doc's boat recieves emergency calls from the Clayton Fire Department via radio.

This summer, we’ve brought you stories of the people who make up the Thousand Islands. In our series Among the Thousand, we look at one island at a time, to tell the story of what makes each community stand out.

Today we turn to Round Island, just down river from Clayton. Richard Withington has lived on the island for 40 years. He's a retired orthopedic surgeon and a member of the Clayton Fire Department. If something happens in the islands, he’s often the first person on the scene.

Everyone calls Dick Withington "Doc." He’s an older, unassuming gentleman with spectacles that rest far down on his nose. When I first meet him, he’s wearing a collared shirt, khaki shorts and a baseball cap with the word Freedom in all caps. Technically, Doc is retired, but he keeps himself busy.

Credit Julia Botero / WRVO News
Doc says his boat "Stormy" is his "workhorse." He uses it to get around the islands on calls in the summer.

Today I’m on Doc’s boat, a call comes in over speakers above our heads.

“That’s the captain of a ship in the channel called the Equinox. He’s calling the dispatcher," said Doc.

Whenever a 9-1-1 emergency call comes in, Doc hears it over this radio if he’s on his boat. If he’s on land, all calls come in as texts on his cell phone.

From his place on Round Island, Doc usually has a 10-minute head start on the Clayton Fire Department. He’s often the first person to show up on the scene of an emergency.

Two years ago, Jack Elder was vacationing in a cottage with his family on Grindstone Island. It was a Wednesday morning in August. Jack was sitting on the porch looking out on the water.

Credit Julia Botero / WRVO News
Jack Elder (left) with his two brothers on Grindstone Island.

“So I got up after having a cup of coffee and I just felt this nausea,” said Jack.

That pain in his stomach moved up into his chest.

“And the minute it began radiating down my arm I knew I had a problem.”

Jack’s daughter called the Clayton Fire Department. Doc was first to arrive. Jack was lying on the bed in pain. He said his memory gets fuzzy here.

“He just talked to me and helped calm me down. And I can remember it was very soothing.”

Jack had a major cardiac blockage. Less than five minutes later the Thousand Island Emergency Rescue Team showed up. Jack was flown to a hospital in Syracuse.

“The fact that I was on an island didn’t matter,” said Jack.

Doc is a safety net for lot of people out here there in the islands. He solves all sorts of problems. He’s the guy who’ll tell you whether or not you need to go to the hospital if you’re sick. If your ankle is sprained, Doc will tell you what to do. If your boat quits out in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, Doc will come out and lend a hand.

Credit Julia Botero / WRVO News
Doc's home on Round Island is named RiverCroft. The owner of the Hotel Frontenac, which burned down more than a century ago, once lived here.

He said lots of people come up to him years later to thank him for his help.

“That’s part of what makes you feel good.”

But Doc is a self-reliant kind of guy. Nine years ago, he started spending the entire winter on Round Island. He’s on the island when all the summer residents go home, when his neighbors go back to the mainland, when the St. Lawrence freezes over. He uses an airboat to travel over the ice. They’re big flat bottom boats with huge propellers on the back. You see them around the Florida Everglades. That’s where Doc got his. He takes me to see it in his boathouse.

“Is this it? Wow.”

It looks impressive but Doc said an airboat isn’t a perfect means of winter transportation.

Credit Julia Botero / WRVO News
Doc's picked up his airboat from the Florida Everglades. He takes it out on rescue missions in winter only under ideal conditions.

“And it also has no floatation in it so if you get water in it you sink. And there is no one to come and help you when you get in a bind.”

He said driving an airboat is like driving a hockey puck across the ice, and of course, he’s got stories.

“Despite my caution we have hit, tip ups, ice shanties, docks, trees, and one truck and the truck was mine. You’re not supposed to laugh. This is supposed to be serious what we are doing here,” Doc said.

Which leads me to my next question: Who helps Doc when he needs it?

“People look out for each other. I’m the only one out here and if my lights don’t come out at a certain time of night someone calls up and said, hey what are you doing tonight?

But Doc said that’s not really why they’re calling. They’re calling to make sure he’s alright.