Thomas Lateulere, the beloved 52-year-old Wading River fire commissioner and ex-chief who helped train thousands of Suffolk County emergency medical personnel, lay in the hospital in late June battling cancer for what would be the last time.
Although he was dying, Mr. Lateulere hadn’t given up on the cause that drove most of his adult life: his devotion to his fellow firefighters and ambulance volunteers. In fact, said Wading River Fire Chief Kevin McQueeney, department officers were still receiving work-related emails from him in his final days. When he died, it shocked the fire department: No one had even known he was in the hospital.
“He was just a tireless servant that gave it all to the end… and I was proud to know him,” Mr. McQueeney said.
Mr. Lateulere was an EMT with a vision, his colleagues recalled. He was one of the first paramedics to fly with the Suffolk County police helicopter in an effort to save lives, and he later instituted and taught the classes that educated thousands of volunteer firefighters and EMTs through the county’s Regional Emergency Medical Services Council. His ideas for and dedication to improving EMT education even extended throughout the state.
“This was a local guy who not only contributed to the locality. He had regional and statewide influence,” said Robert Delagi, director of EMS and public health emergency preparedness for REMSCO. “That’s a testament to his spirit.”
In honor of his tireless work ethic and years of selfless leadership, along with the countless lives he personally and indirectly saved through decades of volunteer work, Mr. Lateulere is the Riverhead News-Review’s 2016 Public Servant of the Year.
Mr. Lateulere joined the Wading River Fire Department in 1981 and became an EMT one year later. In 1987, he earned paramedic certification and joined Stony Brook University Hospital the following year as a transport and flight paramedic for the helicopter team.
While at Stony Brook, Mr. Lateulere met Mr. Delagi, who immediately picked up on his friend’s work ethic and recalled that he was focused on “melding quality education with quality patient care.” The two became decades-long colleagues who eventually went on to work for REMSCO, handling EMT training for the entire county.
“I would describe him as the employee everybody wanted to have. He always put himself out there to do what needed to be done for the health care providers that needed his input,” Mr. Delagi said. “He always put the needs of others before his own. He would come in early, stay late, meet with people on holidays.”
Mr. Lateulere worked almost constantly and donated his overtime pay to a countywide pool that supports employees with cancer.
“It’s ironic that cancer killed him,” Mr. Delagi said.
While at REMSCO, Mr. Lateulere worked his way through the ranks at the Wading River Fire Department and was elected chief from 2003 to 2004. The next year, he joined the fire district’s board of commissioners, helping to shape the department’s future by investing time and effort toward training new recruits at the firehouse each Wednesday. He was instrumental in bringing 24/7 ambulance coverage to the Wading River area.
“It’s a real comfort for the community,” Mr. McQueeney said. “We do 75 percent ambulance calls down here, so it’s a real comfort.”
In 2007, the department named Mr. Lateulere Firefighter of the Year.
“I think the fact that he was a firefighter as well as a paramedic, he understood both worlds,” Mr. Delagi said. “He was able to bridge the gap.”
Mr. Lateulere was eventually diagnosed with cancer, the specific type of which he withheld from coworkers. Mr. Delagi recalled him working in the office with chemotherapy treatments “pumped into his body.” His condition never came up in conversation.
“As medical professionals, we knew that he was sick,” Mr. Delagi said. “He knew that he was sick. No words needed to be spoken.”
Mr. Delagi visited Mr. Lautelere during his final hospital stay. His death “devastated” him, he said.
“I had visited him many times,” Mr. Delagi said. “He kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be out of here in a week,’ but I just knew.”
Mr. Lautelere’s funeral services drew more than 1,000 firefighters and volunteers from across the county and beyond. Firefighters flooded into the firehouse to pay their respects; some were bused in from departments many miles away.
At Mr. Lateulere’s department, where he devoted so much of his time, things feel different now that he’s gone.
“We definitely miss him being around the firehouse,” Mr. McQueeney said. “He was always there for us. You miss his guidance … He made this place better for all of us, and I would just truly like to thank him for that if I had the chance.”
File photo: Mourners pay tribute to Thomas Lateulere at the Wading River firehouse after his death in June. (Credit: Nicole Smith)
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