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Volunteers drivers get hospital workers where they need to be

After two recent snowstorms closed the federal government and schools across the region, people began digging out. The season's snow tally in D.C. reached 55.6 inches Wednesday -- more than the last record of 54.4 inches, set in 1898-99.

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By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010

By 11 a.m. Wednesday, Tanios "Tony" Tannouse already had driven 100 miles through blinding whorls of snow and over unplowed streets so deeply rutted that they rattled his teeth. He'd been on the road for six hours, back and forth from Upper Northwest Washington to Springfield, back and forth from Upper Northwest to Clinton, and was awaiting his next back and forth.

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When other drivers are sheltering in place, Tannouse and volunteers like him are coming on duty, gassing up their four-wheel-drive vehicles to pick up and deliver hospital staff to their shifts.

Yes, the wind gusts made it "a pretty stressful day" and had him off the road by 1 p.m., said Tannouse, 43, of Bethesda. But he is a veteran of the snow shuttles. A volunteer driver for Sibley Memorial Hospital, he logged 470 miles in the big 2003 snowstorm, 200 miles in the December storm and 140 miles in the first February storm, all in his white Chevy Blazer and all on his own dime, because he declines to turn in receipts at the hospital's command center.

"I've always got a couple of four-wheel drives around, and it seems a shame to have them sitting there without helping someone," said Tannouse, who is a master technician for cars and trucks.

His volunteering got more personal after September, when he had a defibrillator implanted in his heart to "fix a little electrical problem of my own. It means that much more that I can help get these folks to the patients who need them," Tannouse said.

Not every hospital solicits volunteers to bring in staff, and not every hospital runs door-to-door service as Sibley does.

Georgetown University Hospital abandoned the volunteer approach last weekend as fresh storms were predicted, contracting out the task to paid drivers and a four-wheel-drive fleet that picked up more than 1,000 hospital staff between Saturday and Tuesday night from designated Metro stops and hotels. Georgetown considered the system more reliable, said spokesman Tom Lander.

But many other hospitals continue to rely on the goodwill of the public, as people who watch the messages that scroll across the bottom of TV screens saying four-wheel-drive vehicles are needed heed the call. Drivers register with the hospital in person, verifying that they have insurance coverage and a suitable vehicle. Hospitals reimburse either gas costs or mileage, several drivers said.

Rodney Guynn and his white Chevy Suburban rolled from his Falls Church home and through Lorton, Woodbridge, Reston and Herndon between 5 and 11 a.m. Wednesday, gathering Inova Fairfax Hospital staff. "I like driving in snow," said Guynn, 47, who also takes as a point of pride his ability "to get up hills that haven't seen a plow. I don't like to be told I can't make it."

Last weekend, 107 drivers delivered almost 700 workers to Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park and Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville.

Matthew Tabor, an unemployed banker from Arlington County "with the luxury of time," was among those, and he was back on the road Wednesday in his black Jeep Wrangler helping the Washington Adventist staff. His routes were confined to a 15-mile radius from Takoma Park, but even at that, he said, "it was getting treacherous."

Tabor, 28, said he "likes to drive, and I think I'm pretty good. I haven't scared anyone yet, anyway." The thank-yous he gets from his passengers "really warm you," but his volunteering has also brought him experiences he would not otherwise have had, he said.

Tabor honed his driving on the rural roads of his native western Kentucky, where, he said, "I just didn't meet people from all over the world like I do now doing this. I've had great discussions with doctors and nurses from India and Jamaica, from all over, about their work and their homes. It's fascinating."

Tabor had planned a trip this week to Phoenix to see friends but arrived at the airport to find the flight overbooked. "I volunteered to give up my seat and take a voucher because I knew snow was coming and I'd have fun with the driving again."

So where will he use the voucher?

"Barcelona. . . . Oh, you were expecting someplace snowy? No, I appreciate good weather, too. I'm thinking it'll be Barcelona."

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