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More than 250 fire department logo patches fill Clark Burn Center with gratitude

Visitors to the Clark Burn Center at SUNY Upstate Medical University are greeted by rows of glass display cases filled with colorful patches representing volunteer fire and rescue stations across the state, from Long Island to the North Country. There are even a few from Canada and one from as far away as Iraq.

Some are whimsical and feature cute animals or cartoon characters dressed up as firefighters. Some are more traditional, with crosses formed by ladders, axes, and fire hoses. Others show firefighters in action, dousing flames or rescuing victims. One lists the name of six fire fighters who died in the line of duty.

Some come from recognizable places like Auburn, Jamesville and Plattsburg, but also from towns, villages and hamlets like Gloversville, Scipio, Union Hill, Kanona and Dexter. 

Patients, staff and visitors alike appreciate the display on Floor 6E, which has grown to feature more than 250 patches.

 “People love to look at it and a lot of times people are in awe at how many different service areas there are,” said burn unit nurse manager Tamara Roberts. “They love to look at the patches and they try to find theirs and then they say, ‘Oh, you need one from our area.’ You always see people stopping in the hall looking at them.”

The burn center, a six-bed intensive care unit, serves people in 37 counties, stretching from Rochester to the west, Northern Pa. to the south, Vermont to the east and north to the Canadian border.

Nurse manager Tracey McKee said the collection started in the early 1990s with a former burn center doctor, Henry Schiller. She said Schiller had a family member die from injuries sustained in a fire and after that he started reaching out to local departments to get their patches to begin the collection.

 “It’s a nice way for us to develop a rapport with some of the fire departments,” she said.

But at a certain point, that outreach was no longer needed because local departments started sending them in. Now the unit has so many, they need to install more display cases to hold them all.

A few months ago, the unit received a note and an envelope with seven patches in it. Some still show the blue fabric of the uniform they were pulled from.

Timothy Helmer of Theresa, N.Y., sent the patches in, and said in the note he had visited the hospital in 2020, saw an article on the collection in the Upstate magazine, and wanted to add a few to it.

The last line of the note read, “Thank ALL of YOU for what you FOLKS have endured during the last three years.”

“I was so touched when I got it,” Roberts said. “I thought this was so amazing.”

Helmer said it was his brother John he was visiting at Upstate. John was being treated for cancer and died in June of 2020. When Helmer came across some of John’s old uniforms with the Fishers Landing unit, he remembered the collection, clipped the patches off them and mailed them in. It meant a lot to him to contribute to the collection. Fishers Landing is a small community in the 1000 Islands.

“He lived and breathed the fire department,” Helmer said. “He was almost 70 when he passed away and he joined when he was 18.”

Helmer is a bit of a collector himself and enjoys coming across these kinds of patches.

“If I see one that catches my interest, I’ll get it, “he said. “Just to remind me how thankful we are that there is the fire projection service available.”

And that’s how some patients on the burn unit feel as well when they walk the halls for physical therapy and they spot a familiar patch.

“It’s a huge conversation piece for all of our patients,” McKee said. “They will say to the physical therapist, ‘Oh that’s the fire department that came and got me. That’s who came and put out the fire.”

McKee said Covid-19 put on hold their plans to add more display cases, but she hopes to be able to do that soon, as they have about 20 patches waiting in a ziploc bag, including Helmer’s. She enjoys looking at the collection as well and appreciates all that it symbolizes.

“I look at these all the time” McKee said. “Every time I come down here there’s always one I don’t remember seeing. I think it’s the nurse in me, I just think this is so impactful on the community and what a great relationship we have with all of these fire departments. They are responding to a fire, and they are treating a patient and they tell the ambulance, ‘You need to take them to Upstate.’ That’s the biggest thing. I know they are bringing them to a place where they are getting the best care.”