Today was a beautiful day here in PA with a nice breeze and upper 60’s weather then I had the wonderful blessing that my wife was feeling good and was able to watch over the children and gave me some time to myself. So, I grabbed some water, my allergy medicine (unusual warm weather equals early blossoms and heavy sneezing) and headed to one of my favorite spots with woods surrounding by a beautiful lake for some peace and quiet reflection time. Little did I know the divine had other ideas.
I arrive later in the morning but it’s not too crowded just some fishing boats and kayakers visible with several dog walkers on the trail. All a safe distance and I was confident I would find the quiet spot to read Richard Rohr’s Just This with my journal for a peaceful, quiet time in nature as this is what I so desperately want after spending day-after-day with a beautiful, wonderful, loving, crazy active toddler. I walk a distance then find the spot to sit after two attempts that were occupied, just far enough away not to see a housing development just outside the park’s boarder. I sit, begin reading and start journaling while noticing the tension inside already with a tight jaw and shoulders so I begin my breathing meditation and letting go. It started well when in the distance I hear an all too familiar sound of a firetruck’s siren waling and this immediately makes my jaw tighten more and and frustration building up in me. I say to myself “it’s just an engine, it will stop soon, it’s fine” as I try to meditate again. Just as that siren begins to fade slightly another one sounds from another direction and getting louder, and louder. My mediation instantly stops and more frustration builds as my jaw is tight, my shoulders are tense and my hands are balled up into fists. “All I want is peace and this shit is happening?!?!” I say to myself. Then I tell myself “okay, it’s a working job but just two or three more apparatus goes by and it will be done” but that does not happen! Siren after siren after siren goes by and now I’m furious! Once again, I try to talk to myself over and over again, “just one more THEN it will be done” but NO, 35 minutes of sirens (possibly longer, I was too pissed off to time it). I left the emergency services 4 years ago and I don’t want to hear another f*&#ing siren I said to myself as I felt rage! Then the next thoughts jumped in for the ego to grab firm control bring back my old, violent false self appeared picturing grabbing the drivers of each engine, pulling them from the fire trucks and throat slamming them to the ground to shut them up. While it has been a very long time since I pictured inflicting violence on anyone, with my history of violence growing up and wanting to be violent as a cause to join the military, provides memories of how I dealt with my pain and this false self does not just vanish. Thankfully, I was no where near the incident so I couldn’t act unconsciously and carry out that false narrative so I looked around and a tree that was right in front of me had a limb mostly broken off and was barley holding on when the tree seemed to say to me, take it, you need it and I don’t. So I grabbed it and started jamming into the ground as hard as I could until it broke. It started about 4 feet in length then was only about 2 feet but I was still hearing sirens and was fuming that’s when I saw a dead piece of tree on the ground and I took the remaining branch and beat that dead wood as hard as I could over and over and over again. With each blow I saw the dead wood shatter and break apart and fly into multiple directions until I was too tired to continue. For a moment there was silence but only a moment then more sirens wailed in the not too far distance and frustration mounted in me. However, a shift happened that happened to me once before and I realized that this was all in me. I was taking what is most likely one of the worst days in someone’s life and making it about me and my comfort, but it was also so much more.
All told I spent 20 years in emergency medicine starting as a Navy Corpsman with the Marines, then as an EMT then Paramedic and for 5 years a Firefighter. The intention was not to become a medic joining the military, sadly I wanted to fight and go war but God intervened and I became a medic causing a rough, but important shift inside me. This was my first time that I felt that people were happy I was there to as I was helping them rather than the violent life I chose after dropping out of high school. After leaving the Navy I became an Emergency Medical Technician, then a Paramedic here in the Philadelphia area before moving to Norther Virginia to be a Firefighter/Medic. Sometimes I was stationed in very busy, urban areas and others I was in very rural areas which was a nice change due to the urban areas call volumes were far greater and I welcomed the days with one, or even no calls, in the very rural areas. However, rural or not, eventually you will come across highly stressful calls that just won’t leave you. For me, injured or dying children would rock me to the core such as the time a 4 year old was hit by his stepfather’s car because he wanted to teach the child a lesson not to touch his car. I remember my rage but having to help the child the best I could. Unfortunately, he had too much internal bleeding with a collapsing lung and ruptured spleen that I couldn’t stop and I had to watch as the child began to turn grey on my knowing he is dying and I can’t do a damn thing about it! What was worse was his mother was riding with us and she could tell he wasn’t well and she kept yelling a me to “do something” over and over again. This isn’t the first time that a family member, or friend would see us show up and say to their loved one, it’s going to be fine, the ambulance is here only to see that that is not going to be the case and as hard as I tried, the person would die. These are just a few of many calls that have had a huge impact on me.
Paramedics are different than EMT’s because a paramedic can give cardiac medications and other interventions that an EMT cannot but even with medications used in the ER, often by the time a medic shows up, it’s too late. In paramedic (in June of 2000) school we were told, often patients will die in spite of what you do. So one way to give the patient the best chances when in the dying process is to load the patient into the ambulance away from the family/friends to continue interventions. Unfortunately, this did not always happen. Sometimes it was just too difficult, and the patient was too critical to load them into the ambulance without doing something on the spot and that’s when the hopes of the family begin to vanish and the desperation floods in as they keep screaming “DO SOMETHING!!!” but all that can be said is “we’re doing everything we can” but so often it isn’t enough but the weight of the expectation and knowing you’re the one who’s supposed to come in and save the day is often daunting, and for me, felt like a weight that was drowning me. I was drinking heavily and even left the system in Northern VA after a fellow firefighter died on the job which nearly killed a close friend of mine and moved to Colorado. There I tried a slower system but before starting a job my allergy to alcohol appeared and I broke out in handcuffs. The Boulder County Court diagnosed me with a severe alcohol problem and PTSD and that is where I started my sobriety journey and working on healing after an intervention by God (that’s another story). I moved back to PA in 2010 and continued in emergency medicine but I was too angry and reactionary and I stopped emergency medicine in 2015 and left medicine totally in 2017.
The American Psychiatric Association describes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence or serious injury. This has many symptoms and is common with drug and/or alcohol addiction but often goes unidentified due to the male macho stigma of being tough and untouchable but this is a serious problem. While it is a more accepted problem with people returning from the military (when discharged not while active duty as one VA study shows) it is not in the public emergency services and I fell into that category hard. Growing up I felt the outcast and I had experienced physical violence as a child and now I wanted to be the rescuer, I did not need rescuing was my mantra and it took getting sober (and lots, and lots of self study on Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr) to realize I’m not in control, never was. Only had the ability to help and the rest was in Gods hands and the more therapy I receive along with other supportive services, I have a much more calm disposition, I’m sober and grateful for my amazing family and life I have right now. However, just like today showed me, I have a long way to go!
Many in the emergency services are suffering as help is very often not sought out. It is not easy to go from the person who is supposed to be in control, the hero, the one who save’s the day, to acknowledging that we are not in control and to let go and let God. So if you think you may know someone who needs help, please reach out by looking online for assistance in your area. For those who just need help with surrendering, here is the full Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebhuer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
the courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time,
accepting hardship as the pathway to peace, taking as
Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it;
trusting that You will make all things right if I surrender to Your will;
so that I can live reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy
with You forever in the next.