May 08, 2023 – At 17, Charlie Garvin was the calming voice on the receiving end of emergency calls, dispatching medical aid throughout Fayette County.
It was 1988 and the recent Fayetteville High School graduate knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up.
He had known since the first time he clipped the pager on his belt.
“I was an EMT and on the volunteer fire department in high school,” Garvin explains. “We carried pagers – there were five or six of us at the school – and if the pager went off, we’d hop in a buddy’s old Ford Ranger and ride the two blocks to the fire department.”
He knew then he wanted to go into healthcare, but it took 29 years, a few career changes and the encouragement of a new partner before he made his lifelong dream a reality.
Garvin got his first real healthcare experience while serving in the United States Air Force.
After basic training in San Antonio, Texas, he was assigned to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where he trained as a Medical Services Specialist.
“Being in the military you have a lot more leeway with what you can do as opposed to what you have to be licensed to do in the civilian sector,” he says of his time working as an ER Medic in what was then the U.S. Air Force’s second largest hospital. “So, I started IVs, did phlebotomy, sutures and casts.
“I loved it,” he continues. “It was extremely fascinating to me.”
Though Garvin enjoyed his time in the Air Force, after four years of active duty and two years of inactive duty, he says he was ready for a change.
“I got home and wanted to be away from the conformity, so I went a little on the wild side,” he says.
Garvin laughs as he points to his bald head and explains that the “wild side” meant he grew his hair out and took his experiences as an amateur point-and-shoot photographer to Whitewater Photography, where he was hired to photograph southern West Virginia’s whitewater rafting scene.
And as he worked along the riverbanks – or dangling from a rope on the side of a cliff – his talent grew.
“That’s where I learned how to use an actual professional camera,” he says. “It was a lot of fun.”
It wasn’t his only gig though as it was around that time that he enrolled in a local college with his sights set on a nursing degree.
It was a short-lived pursuit, however, as his priorities shifted when he and his now ex-wife learned their first daughter was on the way.
“I had to pay the bills,” he says of his decision to leave school and find more stable work.
Friendships made on the river led Garvin to an opportunity as a staff photographer at The Register-Herald, where, aside from a brief hiatus during which he and a couple of friends began their own photography business, he remained for 15 years.
“I’m really proud of the work I did as a photographer,” he says of a career which spanned the use of both film and digital cameras.
During his time at the paper, Garvin photographed everything from traditional news and community events to local and state politicians and even former President George W. Bush’s second inauguration.
He’s perhaps best known, however, for a photo of four horses – three faces and one backside.
Garvin says he “knew he’d made it” when he found the photo dubbed in print as “There’s One in Every Crowd,” posted on a Russian website.
“I had made it worldwide,’” he says with a laugh.
Though he enjoyed his time at the paper, Garvin left in 2010 when a friend who was leasing oil and gas properties in Fayette County offered him a new opportunity.
He says he knew that wasn’t his future, though, as he left the position after a year and a half.
It was during that time of transition, he says, that he also went through a divorce.
“And then I reconnected with an old friend, who is now my wife,” he says, with a smile.
It was Bonnie, he says, who encouraged him to finally chase his dream.
“She convinced me I could do it and supported me – financially and emotionally – while I did,” he says.
Garvin had a long road back as he retook classes from 20 years earlier before he could enroll in nursing school.
“Some I had dropped out of and some I just didn’t do very well in,” he says. “But I took and aced all of those.”
His hard work – and enthusiasm – paid off in 2016 when, at 46, he received his associates in nursing as well as the “Spirit of Nursing” award from Bluefield State University.
“All of those years I was working somewhere else, I had recurrent dreams of being on the floor and working in the medical field,” he says. “I’m very thankful Bonnie convinced me to go back.”
Garvin worked as an ICU nurse extern at Beckley ARH Hospital during his final year of nursing school, and already had full-time employment lined up for the same place upon graduation.
“It was fascinating to me,” he says of his extern experience in the ICU. “You run the whole gamut of patient care. You start clinically thinking how do I make this patient better? What tools do I have in my tool bag to help this patient?
“You get patients when they’re sickest and you hope when they’re discharged, transitioned out to the med surg floor or on to the next step, they’re better.
“It’s all encompassing.”
Garvin has served in several capacities over the past seven years, as he was promoted from floor RN to clinical nurse manager in 2019 and then to ICU head nurse manager in October 2022.
His current position is an administrative role as he helps lead the nurses on the floor.
On the inside of his office door, is a handwritten message:
“Your role as a leader is to bring out the best in others, even when they know more than you.”
He says the note to self is an daily reminder of his primary responsibility.
“It keeps me focused,” he says. “It’s important, especially as a new manager.”
Garvin keeps a running list of continuing education opportunities he hopes to offer ICU nurses, but he also plans to further his own education, first by earning his critical care nurse certification and then by obtaining his bachelor’s degree in nursing.
“I know I don’t have to get it (BSN), but I think I owe it to the people I work with,” he says. “If I don’t have that knowledge, I’m doing them a disservice.”
It’s been nearly 30 years since the father of three and grandfather of one stepped away from his nursing pursuits.
Garvin, who is also a skilled musician best known for his time with the Appalachian Stompgrass band The Wild Rumpus, says he sometimes wishes he would have stuck it out the first time around.
“But I wouldn’t have my kids and I wouldn’t have my grandbaby,” he says. “I wouldn’t have all these great experiences throughout my life. So, I don’t regret it.”
Now 53, he says he’s not entirely sure what career paths lie ahead, but he knows the end destination.
“The only thing that’s rock solid is, I plan to retire from here,” he says. “I believe in what we’re doing here. “I’ve never been happier than I am now, here at this hospital, with this team.”
Appalachian Regional Healthcare (ARH), is a not-for-profit health system operating 14 hospitals in Barbourville, Hazard, Harlan, Hyden, Martin, McDowell, Middlesboro, Paintsville, Prestonsburg, West Liberty, Whitesburg, and South Williamson in Kentucky and Beckley and Hinton in West Virginia, as well as multi-specialty physician practices, home health agencies, home medical equipment stores and retail pharmacies. ARH employs more than 6,500 people with an annual payroll and benefits of $330 million generated into our local economies. ARH also has a network of more than 600 active and courtesy medical staff members. ARH is the largest provider of care and the single largest employer in southeastern Kentucky and the third-largest private employer in southern West Virginia.