SUV drivers put pedals to mettle

A half-dozen shiny big SUVs were lined up outside St. Joseph Medical Center yesterday morning, their volunteer drivers proving to the world that they are nothing like the arrogant, self-centered, fuel-squandering ignoramuses of stereotype.

"You hear it on the news - all about the gas-guzzling hogs driving SUVs," said Jeff Hegberg, climbing back into his $40,000, 7,200-pound, black 2002 Chevrolet Suburban. "Well, on a day like this, what would the hospitals do without us?"

Then he was off on another run, transporting critical hospital workers: three more drop-offs, two pickups, from Carney to Bel Air. Hospitals around the region relied on volunteer drivers such as Hegberg yesterday to keep operating in the aftermath of the worst snowstorm in 80 years. And most of the volunteers, in turn, relied on their sport utility vehicles to roar down side streets drifted with 3 feet of powder or bust through walls of crusty snow left by plows.

Even as they have become the engine of Detroit profits and the darling of American drivers, sport utility vehicles have attracted outspoken enemies. Since the Sept. 11 attacks and talk of war in Iraq, the vehicles have been widely pilloried as symbols of the United States' dependence on imported oil. New television ads conceived by columnist Arianna Huffington even suggest that SUV drivers are unwitting allies of al-Qaida.

Keith Bradsher's book, High and Mighty: SUVs - The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, attacked not only the SUVs but their drivers. Bradsher wrote that the automakers' market research shows SUV buyers to be "insecure and vain. ... Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors and communities."

Well, don't try to tell that to the folks who turned out Sunday and yesterday to get critical workers to their hospital jobs. While some owners admitted yesterday that Maryland offers few opportunities to take full advantage of their bulked-up vehicles' capabilities, the snowstorm blizzard was unquestionably one.

In some cases the drivers were on staff. Dr. Alan L. Jones, chief of trauma orthopedics at the University of Maryland Medical Center, loaded his Ford Expedition with colleagues early yesterday, collecting Dr. Brian J. Browne, head of emergency medicine, in Green Spring Valley; a critical-care nurse in Cockeysville; and an anesthesiologist in Stoneleigh.

It "was so heartwarming that all of a sudden you got this very positive response: 'Don't worry, we're coming to get you.' ... I had no way to get here in any other fashion," Browne said from the emergency room.

But most emergency chauffeurs are volunteers. Hegberg, 36, who designs electronic highway signs for a living, had driven his Ford Explorer for St. Joseph during two past snowstorms.

On Sunday afternoon, Hegberg stopped by the hospital, taking along his Parkville neighbor Jack Fowler, 49, as navigator. They drove till after 10 p.m., stopping under bridges to scrape ice off windshield wipers, picking up and dropping off workers from downtown Baltimore to Stewartstown, Pa., and points between. Yesterday they were back for more.

"I actually enjoy doing it," Hegberg said. "It's the only way I can get out and play in the snow and not get in trouble with my wife." His first challenge was to find a route out of his Parkville neighborhood that avoided numerous stuck cars.

But some formidable vehicles also had trouble in the latest weather. Many drivers were disappointed to discover that the heavy snow defeated even their mammoth SUVs. Hegberg and Fowler saw a Baltimore County snowplow truck stuck sidewise across Philadelphia Road Sunday evening.

For liability reasons, volunteers are not allowed to drive patients to the hospital; that job was left to ambulances. But volunteers must bring staffers who are designated essential - and that's a lot more than nurses and physicians.

At St. Joseph, with 250 beds full and dozens of workers sleeping at the hospital between shifts, food service workers are critical. Pharmacists have to be there to deliver life-saving drugs. By law, a licensed building engineer must be on hand to maintain heat and power.

Then there are extraordinary situations. Charles DeBaufre used his Dodge pickup to collect the wife of a 94-year-old man who was near death at St. Joseph so that she could be with him in his last minutes. "She'd asked them to try to keep him alive. It feels pretty good to be able to do that," DeBaufre said.

Mark Lundin, a database analyst for Comcast, made his first pickup for St. Joseph at 5:30 a.m. in Oliver Beach in Eastern Baltimore County and burned a tank of gasoline ferrying workers for most of the day in his red Nissan Xterra. He found two service stations out of gas because trucks couldn't deliver.

As a single guy, he said, he has been asked many times why he drives a 16 miles-per-gallon SUV. He has to think for a while about the answer. "Somewhat for a feeling of authority and control on the road," he said. "To go places I'm not supposed to go. To not get stuck, whatever the weather does."

Actually, in yesterday's snowdrifts, Lundin did get stuck - twice. He dug the Xterra out. Then he drove on to collect the next hospital worker who was depending on him.

Sun staff writer Erika Niedowski contributed to this article.