A Look Back: The Bookends of a Career

It occurred to me last night as I was laying in bed trying to fall asleep, that this week marked a major anniversary for me. On July 30, 2000, I ran my last call……

That call was not the “worst” call of my career – far from it. But it was quite memorable. Intense.

I spent 20-ish minutes in the back of an SUV that had been broadsided and rolled onto the passenger side, trying to protect and treat a young woman while the rest of my crew cut the vehicle apart around us. As I tried to start an IV (yes, I was successful)  and administer oxygen, I remember her repeatedly trying to punch me in the head – she had a significant head injury – and all of the dust and debris blowing through the car as Flight for Life landed on the road behind us ….Oh yeah – she was also seven months pregnant.

As we watched the helicopter fly out, the A/C on scene gave me shit about not shaving that day. I told him to F-off and then told him I quit, but agreed to finish the shift. Of course, he knew it was my last shift anyway, so we all laughed. Then went back to the station for lunch.

That was my last call…..

I ran my first call on January 19th, 1988. A commercial plane crash. I was a college student who had signed up for the county search and rescue team so I could learn how to rock climb. I obviously had no idea what I had really signed up for…..

I was studying for an accounting exam when I got the call. It was about 830pm and we were in the middle of a “mild” blizzard. The plane simply hadn’t shown up at the small, mountain airport as expected. Radar had it until just a few miles out. So, we did not know exactly where to look – only a general flight plan to go by and a lot of unpopulated mountainous terrain to search.

So, here I am…..a college student with no clue, snowshoeing through the wilderness, in the middle of the night, during a blizzard looking for a plane crash. We found it – thanks to footprints left by a survivor who literally hiked out to a nearby farmhouse. Over the course of just a few minutes, the scene went from dark and quiet – only the sound of a handful of rescuers trudging through the snow and their headlamps – to a level of commotion and controlled chaos that I had never before experienced. Flood lights and generators appeared very soon after, followed quickly by all the tools of the trade – axes, pry bars, the “jaws of life”……

We worked through the night extricating people. Half the people on the plane survived – the other half did not. Only one of the survivors was seriously injured – the rest pretty much walked away from it. Literally and figuratively.

After many hours, the first crew on scene, us, was relieved by the next crew. I sat down in the snow with a few others not too far from the plane, but out of the reach of the lights. We ate sandwiches that had been brought in…..Then we hiked back out. About two miles, if I remember correctly.

The trip back was again dark and quiet. But, as we crested the last ridge, we were inundated with noise and light. As the first group out, we were immediately attacked by TV reporters looking for a story.

By lunch time the next day, roughly 5 or 6 hours after leaving the plane, I was back in class listening to classmates and professors recount the stories they had heard on the news about the crash. None was very accurate. I passed my accounting exam – but only just barely…..

Both of these calls shared one very obvious characteristic – surreal. I think most of the really “bad” calls share that trait. Surreal. Many times I remember going straight from an especially nasty call to the grocery store to get food for the next meal……..Just 30 minutes earlier I had someones life in my hands and now I’m standing in line to buy lunch meat……Surreal. Towards the end of my career, the surreal-ness of it all became more and more apparent. Impressive even. Towards the end, it even bothered me at times. How could we move on so quickly from the most horrific things imaginable and get back to a normal day? I just pronounced that guy in his living room and had to tell his wife – but man am I hungry! Oh hi old friend who I haven’t seen in a couple of years…..What’s new? How are you? Oh, and by the way…..your mom and your dad are both upstairs in their bed – both dead. Looks like one shot the other but I can’t tell which one did it….But it’s great to see you…..

Yes, that actually happened. No, the conversation did not go exactly like that….but, believe it or not, it was very close. Surreal.

Maybe, as things became more surreal, I should have noticed and realized something was happening. Something was changing. Maybe that was a sign.

I think it is quite safe to say that my struggles with PTSD started with the plane crash. I remember going back to my dorm room and trying to get some sleep before class…..All I could hear was the very loud hum of the generators and tools. And all I could smell was the jet fuel that had been spilled all over the mountainside. I won’t go into what I saw when I closed my eyes….

My struggles however did not end with my last call.

During the years between my first call and my last, I saw and dealt with things I could never have imagined. The kids are what really got to me. I don’t know if I saw more pediatric horrors than any other medic – several medics have told me I did – but I did see more than I could take.

As I look back at that part of my life, at that career, it was an amazing experience. Every moment of it. I loved it! And I learned more about myself in those years than I ever would have had I pursued any other career. However, it did take its toll. I continue to work every day to win the battle with PTSD. I am succeeding. Everyday.

My only regret – I did not recognize the signs that something was wrong before I left an incredibly rewarding career that I loved. If I had known, if someone I worked with had known…….I would probably still be doing the job.

What do I want you to take away from this post? It all adds up and compounds starting with the very first call you run. And every single one of us is susceptible to PTSD.

Every. Single. One.

So, pay attention to yourself. Pay attention to your co-workers. Learn about the signs of PTSD and don’t be afraid to talk about it. Share what you learn with your co-workers. If you see someone who is struggling, step in and help. Most importantly, be open to others helping you.

The career you save may be your own……

 

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4 responses

  1. My friend…I remember that crash. I remember you going out on the call, and I remember all of the misinformation in the news. I didn’t realize until we reconnected much later, as adults, that you had gone on to be a first responder. I have such respect for all of the people that do that job. Your job is dealing with people on what is likely their WORST day. Thank you for the work that you did…and, continue to do. The rest of us don’t really realize the toll that it has to take on those that are the “helpers.” This blog is bringing an awareness of just how deeply our first responders are affected. Again…thank you for being one who stepped up.

    1. Wow, Brandee. Thank you so much for the kind words. It really does mean a lot.

  2. Caws and Effect | Reply

    I could have written your posts myself. The only thing that is different is that I don’t have the peer support. I work in a place that hostile. My EMS friends would have understood. Now, I just take call after call after working 25 yrs in EMS. I’ll be in touch, your friend shared my post with you. I have the eye movement therapy tonight.

    I am sad to know I have given so much and it is forever branded on my soul. Something to be controlled, contained, but never exorcised.

    I have started to be brave..told a few friends..they expect me to be better, or tell me I am complaining…tell me to step it up…or tell me to get it together..Oh, if only it were that easy.

    Often, I go home and “flood” and stare at the walls and shut everyone out. I sit there and think I NEED to move off the couch and I cannot…. I have not resorted to ETOH or drugs yet. I am hoping therapy helps. I get panic attacks during my sleep and at work. Daily.

    Namaste.

    Donna

    1. Donna – Two things:

      1) You are not alone.
      2) There is nothing “wrong” with you.

      I’m not sure which of the two is more important, but they are both points that you need to embrace.

      You have taken the biggest, most difficult step: Admitting that you need help and asking for it. I will not tell you that it is all down hill from here, but you have taken a huge step towards your recovery from a life of selfless service. You have been taking care of strangers for a very long time. Now it is time to take care of YOU! And I am VERY confident that you are on the right track.

      The eye movement therapy you mentioned, EMDR is phenominal! It has worked wonders for me – from the very first session. That said, there is more to it than just EMDR. Talking about your situation, your feelings, is absolutely crucial. Start with your therapist. Hopefully you have found someone with experience in dealing with PTSD and with whom you can develop a very good rapport. Trust and security are a must.

      It is incredibly unfortunate that you are not finding much support through friends and co-workers, but it does not surprise me. PTSD in First Responders is still mostly ignored or glossed over. Afterall, we are the ones there to help – we shouldn’t need help.

      Keep in mind, though, that you do not need for EVERYONE to understand and support you. You just need a few key people who do understand and will be there for you. You will find these people as you begin to work through things and as you gain a better understanding of exactly what is happening to you, what has happened to you, and what you need to regain control.

      Good for you, Donna! For having the guts to stand up and ask for help.

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