WALPOLE — Sirens rang out in the town common Saturday afternoon, but not for an emergency.
Crews from Walpole, North Walpole, Alstead, Langdon and Acworth formed a mini-parade of fire trucks and ambulances with lights and horns blaring as Paula Gallagher stood from the common, giving a thumbs up as they passed.
A pink fire truck leading the pack parked, and a man approached a now-sitting Gallagher. He dropped to one knee and hugged her tightly.
“I’m here to tell you I love you and that you’re not alone,” Jay Meyer told Gallagher.
Meyer is the coordinator of Pink Heals Vermont, a local chapter of a national program that focuses on community support for people facing disease or illness like cancer.
Behind Meyer, a line had formed of people waiting with flowers in hand to hug Gallagher, too.
“It was very humbling that so many people showed up to give me their love and support and prayers,” she said Sunday.
As she points out, she’s going on 11 years with cancer, though she is facing her first bout of chemotherapy.
Gallagher was diagnosed with precancerous tissue in 2008. After surgery, she took medication for five years and returned for annual mammograms and said it had pretty much cleared up. Doctors found cancer in 2016, however, and after surgery said it was still in the breast. Gallagher continued with her medications until this past August, when another mammogram showed that the cancer had moved to her lymph node.
She’s slated for five months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation treatment.
“I just thank God everyday that, number one, they found it and located it, and with all the good work and the chemo and the radiation, I feel I have a chance to beat it,” she said. “That’s not without a lot of prayer, however.”
Her grandson, Jeremiah Richardson, is a volunteer firefighter in North Walpole and recently participated in a Pink Heals event. That gave him the idea to bring it to his Nanna, he said, so he asked his fire chief, who contacted Meyer.
“My grandmother’s been one of my biggest inspirations for me joining the fire department,” he said, adding that he started as a Walpole Fire Explorer when he was 14.
“Everything that I do I look at my grandmother and I think, ‘Is this something that Nanna would be alright with?’ ” he said.
Richardson isn’t the only one Gallagher pushed to join the field; she has a special connection to many in the first responder community. While working at Cheshire Medical Center for nearly 25 years, she taught emergency medical technician classes. There are people she taught whose children are now EMTs, she said, and seeing the family connections has been rewarding.
Some of the EMTs she worked with came Saturday to offer their well wishes.
Meyer said this was a special case since many of the crews knew Gallagher, but the idea of Pink Heals is simple.
“Basically what we do is just support the person, tell ’em we love ’em and we care about ’em, and it puts a smile on their face,” Meyer said. “That’s how I get paid is a smile and a hug.”
People can buy Pink Heals shirts at these events, he added, but all of that money is used to maintain the truck.
Meyer began volunteering with Pink Heals in 2011. Three months before they wed, Meyer’s then-fiancee was diagnosed with breast cancer. He said because the mammogram caught it early she came out OK, but he began educating himself on the subject and learned he could raise money for people, not for a cause.
After getting his own pink truck four years ago, Meyer now covers Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and splits Connecticut with another truck in Rhode Island. His visits have included a young boy in Rutland with a diaphragm disorder and a man on hospice care at the VFW in Swanzey.
He’s also joined Pink Heals on several national tours.
“I’ve met people all over the country, you know, and I’ve heard so many times when we’ve done these visits that some of these women really think they’re alone,” Meyer said. “... So when we walk the people over and they start reading the side of the truck [with the signatures] ... it brings a lot of peace to ’em.”