Editor’s note: David Cook died June 24, 2019, after this story was published.
David Cook loves people.
And, people really love him.
They talk about his smile, his humble heart, his love of serving others and, jokingly, his Southern-boy appetite for Mountain Dew and boiled peanuts.
Cook, 43, was a junior in high school when he started working in emergency medical services in Hampton County, where he was born and raised.
Since then, he’s been in EMS, law enforcement, and fire-rescue agencies all over South Carolina, working full- or part-time jobs for about 25 years.
He’s stayed close to home, but has served around all of the state’s southernmost counties: Allendale, Beaufort, Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton, Dorchester, Hampton and Jasper.
On Thursday, after spending the majority of his life in the back of ambulances taking care of others, Cook made his final ride.
This time was different, though.
This time, he was coming home.
Cook, who has been battling a rare form of cancer for months, was transported from the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston to the Hampton Regional Medical Center in Varnville, 80 miles away, for hospice care.
Hundreds of law enforcement, fire-rescue and EMS personnel from all over the state showed up to welcome him home.
After Cook was settled in the back of an ambulance from Allendale County EMS, where he had worked for more than two decades, he looked to the friends beside him and said, “Let it ride one last time.”
A few police cars, including from S.C. Highway Patrol where Cook was working when he was diagnosed, were at the hospital in Charleston to give him a police escort.
As the drive continued, the number of vehicles multiplied. Police from every county they passed joined the escort. Officers who weren’t along for the drive paused to salute him.
By the time Cook made it to Hampton County, about 50 police cars flanked the ambulance.
The final stretch was lined with hundreds of emergency vehicles, including an ambulance from Beaufort County EMS where he recently worked for five years. The ambulances, police cars and fire trucks flashed their lights and sounded their sirens in tribute.
When they got closer to the hospital, Cook’s friends inside the ambulance opened the back doors so he could see the support.
“We woke him up, and he started figuring out what was going on,” said John Lawson, director of Allendale County EMS. “His eyes lit up and he smiled from ear to ear. He couldn’t believe it.”
“All of this is for me?” Cook asked.
“Yes, it sure is, man,” Lawson replied.
Everyone in the ambulance cried.
“You’re riding down the road trying to hold back tears of sadness to be strong for him,” Lawson said. “Then you see that happen and you don’t know whether you’re crying because you’re sad or you’re crying because you’re happy that he’s happy.”
Cook was diagnosed with bile duct cancer last fall. Although unexpected, this wasn’t the first time he had fought cancer.
Years before, he had waged — and won — a battle with kidney cancer.
He’s been fighting hard the entire journey, but everyone expected that.
“We knew if there was anybody that could fight this off — and he has for much longer than they expected — it would be David,” S.C. Highway Patrol Sgt. Amery English said.
English has known Cook “on and off” for about 10 years. Their paths would cross while working for separate law enforcement agencies, but their friendship flourished when Cook came on board with the Highway Patrol in 2011.
Cook began in Troop 6, one of the department’s coastal troops that includes Beaufort and Jasper counties. In 2016 he transferred to Troop 8 to work on the Safety Improvement Team.
English was one of the people waiting in the hospital room when Cook arrived. He made sure there was Mountain Dew and boiled peanuts on the bedside table.
“I knew that would make him laugh,” English said.
Susanne Peeples, director at Hampton County Emergency Management, knows Cook’s laugh well.
She met Cook — she calls him her son — in 1994 when he joined the EMS as a high schooler. She’s watched him grow up.
She’s been with him through a lot.
The tears from laughing.
The tears from pain.
Now that Cook is in hospice care and no one really knows what the future looks like, Peeples said she is certain of one thing.
“David is a fighter,” she said. “I’ve never seen anybody fight so hard, and he has no intention of giving up.”