A true inspiration
Jamie Atkinson, the 2018 winner of the Suffolk County News Inspiration Award

SCN/Finnegan

A true inspiration

Story By: LIZ FINNEGAN
2/14/2019


SAYVILLE—Every year, the Suffolk County News asks readers to nominate individuals from their community who are dedicated to volunteerism in a way that benefits all. After reviewing a number of nominations this year, our committee has chosen Oakdale resident Jamie Atkinson for this recognition. Those who know of his work will no doubt agree that he is a very good choice.

At the age of 37, Atkinson, a longtime first responder with Sayville Community Ambulance Company, has given up a good part of his life to help others. In fact, that volunteerism, which began in 1999, has resulted in him answering 2,478 calls to date. But his commitment began even before that as a member of the company’s Youth Squad. “I used to leave high school and go [on calls.] I kept my beeper in my locker,” he noted with a laugh.

At the time of this interview, Atkinson was only days away from retirement from NYC MTA police, where he rose to the rank of detective and received numerous commendations. He said that interest in helping others stemmed from his parents, who were both in law enforcement. His mother, who is now deceased, was the first female MTA police officer.

“I always wanted to be a police officer,” he said. “I like the community outreach. My parents would come home [from work] and tell me how they were able to help people. I liked that.” And then once when his mother passed out at home and he called 911, he was impressed by the way his neighbors who responded to that call had helped her. “Someone in my community just drove up to help. How cool is that.”

Atkinson, who is one of five brothers, grew up in Sayville and graduated from Sayville High School in 2000. He attended Suffolk Community College as well as Empire College, and all the while he worked and volunteered. During that time, he said he’d been on some very disturbing emergency calls. However, the most upsetting was the time he spent at Ground Zero, only days after the attacks on the World Trade Center. He was 19 years old at the time and said he didn’t really think twice about answering that call for assistance. He was there with the Ambulance Company for nearly a week working with NYPD.  “We were down there at the rubble pulling bodies out,” he said, noting that he’s still haunted by the smell of burning flesh. “It was nauseating. I’ll always remember that.” 

His time there has haunted him in other ways, though. In 2017, he was diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer, “a one-in-a-million” diagnosis that is directly related to his exposure to toxins at the site. He had surgery and chemotherapy and is still undergoing tests and treatment. “It is what it is,” he said. “But it was an honor to go down there and help. Some went into the military [after the attacks]. This was my way of helping.”

Though he has had a rough couple of years, he remains optimistic. “In life, sometimes you’re the ball and sometimes you’re the bat. I’m the ball right now, but I’ll be the bat again,” he remarked smiling.

Helping him on the road to recovery is his wife Brenda, whom he married in 2016. She too is in the same field, a DEA officer with the Suffolk County Sheriff‘s Department. A Naval reservist, she’s been deployed multiple times overseas including Kuwait.

While she was deployed, Atkinson delved into his work as a safety officer at Northwell Health and racked up the most arrests six years in a row with the MTA police. Atkinson also started NYS’s first Narcan training program and Shed the Meds events, both at the Sayville Ambulance Company headquarters. “I noticed there was a [drug abuse] trend and so I figured we had to do something. 

“These are just temporary solutions, though,” he said, explaining that more treatment centers and awareness programs are also necessary. 

“He always goes above and beyond,” said fellow Ambulance Company member Melanie Holz. She first met Atkinson when he was only 14 years old and worked for the South Shore Community Organization. She said he worked many years in programs that bettered the lives of youth and their families. There, he started a holiday toy drive in memory of his mother. His connection to that group continues as he serves on the Board of Directors for Youth Enrichment Services, Islip Town’s youth agency that’s responsible for programs and activities in the area. Holz said in addition, Atkinson is a stakeholder in the Great South Bay Coalition, where he provides hours of service.

During his tenure at Sayville Ambulance Company, Atkinson started a number of other programs for the community, such as a free ride home for kids on prom night; a free life jacket rental program for kids, adults and even pets; and the bicycle helmet program. In the latter initiative, volunteers drive around neighborhoods and when they see a kid on a bike without a helmet, they give them one while rewarding helmeted kids with gift certificates for ice cream. “It’s all common-sense stuff,” he said.

Atkinson is looking forward to retirement even at such a young age. “I’ll find something to do with my time,” he said. Some of his time is already filled with sitting on the boards of the Ambulance Company and Northwell Health. Recently, New York State Congressman Peter King nominated Atkinson to the Scientific/Technical Advisory Committee of the WTC Health Program. King called him an “ideal candidate to represent WTC survivors” on the committee.

However, he already has a couple of new programs lined up at the Ambulance Company headquarters. He’s planning a parent and child (12 and up) cooking class that he said “will be rolled out soon.”

And he is working with the Suffolk County medical examiner to have “Missing Person’s Day,” the first of its kind in Suffolk County, which is slated for this May. This event will help to connect families and friends of individuals who have long gone missing with experts that have the resources to help them in that search, while giving emotional support. The day will also offer safety lectures, activities and exhibits.

“We should be offering these programs to the community,” he said. “If you do the right thing for people, you can never do wrong.”

Through all of his troubles and many successes, Atkinson said he’s learned so much along the way. And of his most poignant lessons, he noted, “Life is precious. Don’t take things for granted.”