When Arnie heard that a woman was trapped alone in an elevator, he was off to the rescue.
He climbed down the elevator shaft, crawled through the roof and kept her company until she was freed.
The next day, he sent flowers.
Under the hot sun of Honduras, a despondent team of U.S. dentists needed his help.
They had forgotten to bring a power source for their suction tools. Without them, the trip would be a bust.
Arnie rushed off to a hardware store, bought a bunch of shop vacs and rigged them into suction machines that still work today.
When an Eminence farmer died tragically, Arnie was soon out in the young man’s fields to harvest his crops.
In the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Arnie heard about a group of nuns who needed rescuing. When his team found they had already been saved, they stepped over FEMA’s red tape and helped set up ad hoc medical clinics and pharmacies that ended up serving thousands of Louisianans in desperate need.
When a tornado hit Frankfort in 1974, Arnie was one of the first in the field, working beside the hundreds who dug through the wreckage.
In his official capacity, Arnie LeMay, 58, is director of engineering at Frankfort Regional Medical Center. Unofficially, he’s “the engineer with a big heart.”
Hospital CEO Chip Peal calls him Frankfort’s MacGyver. Arnie can fix, build or rig anything, which makes him a lifesaver at home, at work and across the globe.
Nurse Emily Mills has worked with Arnie since 1983 and says her friend “always goes the extra, extra step.”
Emily tells the story of an older couple from Russia who stayed at the hospital until the wife had to go to a nursing home.
They didn’t speak English and were having trouble coping with the change. Arnie wanted to help in any way he could.
When it came time to transport the woman by ambulance to the nursing home, the husband, already nervous, was going to follow in his car.
But it wouldn’t start.
Arnie crawled under the car, fixed the problem and drove behind the man to give him peace of mind.
His heroics earned him the 2010 Frist Humanitarian Award – a big deal in medical circles. Employees from 260 hospitals are nominated for their humanitarian and volunteer activities, and Arnie was chosen from among them.
“I didn’t even know I’d been nominated,” said a very surprised Arnie.
Kathy, Arnie’s wife of 29 years, says her husband helps people wherever he goes. She and their three children, Sam, 25, Caitlin, 23, and Andrew, 20, are used to plans changing or something not getting fixed around the house because Arnie has found someone in need.
“We live in a farming area where we get a lot of tornadoes and downed trees,” she said. “He always grabs his chainsaw and helps.”
Farming is in Arnie’s blood. He grew up in Shelby and Henry counties, where his parents were tenant farmers. He was often in the fields working with tobacco, corn and livestock – but he really excelled at fixing things.
In high school, he was the kid teachers called when a projector wasn’t working.
“You could hand me a broken alarm clock, and I would fix it,” Arnie remembers. “People were always handing me broken stuff.”
He doesn’t have a degree in engineering, but his experience in technological and biomedical fields prepared him for his role at the hospital. He also helps set up, maintain and repair equipment at the Mercy Clinic in Shelbyville, which provides medical and dental care to the indigent.
As director of engineering, Arnie and his crew keep the hospital buildings and grounds running. He also manages construction, oversees security and – what he sees as extremely important – makes sure the medical technology is working well.
“Just a very subtle difference in a blood pressure reading affects the care of a patient,” he says. “Precision matters. All my guys know that we operate as if the next person using a machine is a member of our family. That’s a pretty good standard.”
It wasn’t until 2004 that Arnie discovered his usefulness on a global scale when he went with a mission group to Honduras.
Emily remembers Arnie breaking down in tears after he returned.
“There’s so much to do,” he told Emily. “And I just couldn’t do it all.”
He resolved then to do more for the truly impoverished.
Sister Larraine Lauter, an Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph, was on that first trip with Arnie, and the two struck up a friendship that would lead to several more trips and opportunities to help.
Arnie has been invaluable to the people of Honduras, Larraine says. He knows how to organize people and build systems under tough situations.
“If we need shade, Arnie will figure out a way to make shade,” she said.
When there’s nothing to build or fix, he’s hanging out with people, showing them compassion and love, even if it’s just a cup of cold water.
Their most significant work in Honduras has been to install water filtration systems that now provide clean water to more than 1,800 homes and thousands of people.
The success of the project, which Arnie researched and helped implement, has led to the creation of the nonprofit organization Water with Blessings, which will bring pure water to third-world countries across the globe.
Projects with his favorite nun have connected Arnie to other medical missionaries, and he currently plans to travel to multiple African nations to help design, build and install equipment in replacement hospitals.
It’s no surprise that Arnie is also a former pilot and kayaker. Today, he says he opts for slower, less expensive hobbies. He remodels his old home in Eminence and rigs up old cars to run on vegetable oil.
He also enjoys spending time with his wife and kids, hiking, biking and occasionally fishing.
People who work with Arnie at the hospital or in the mission field emphasize the fact that Arnie never loses sight of individuals as he works on systems and machines.
“Engineers are often characterized as not having much in the way of people skills,” Larraine said. “Not Arnie. He sees the needs.”
Yet Arnie – always first to the rescue and first to mention his flaws – says compassion is the area of his life where he continues to grow most.
“When I first started mission work, I took pictures of pumps and buildings and things. I was blown away by seeing how people lived and how they made things work. I began to appreciate the elegance of their solutions to problems,” he explains.
“Today, I have a more open heart; I appreciate people more. Now I take pictures of people. I’m not so hung up on things.”