My brothers and sisters, this job is a living nightmare at times. It assaults our bodies and our minds. I know this because I have been in fire and EMS for the last 12 years. Nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia, depression, suicidal urges, short temper and unreasonable anger is an unfortunate side effect of our profession. Perhaps an adverse effect would be a more appropriate description. Some of us have all of these feelings, some of us have a combination of these, but all of us will experience at least one of these somewhere during our career. If you have not experienced it yet, then count yourself lucky because some of us get hit early on. I made it 8 years before things started piling up on me and before I knew it, I had all of these symptoms.
I began my career at the wise old age of 18 years old after having a fairly privileged childhood. I had absolutely no idea that the real world really was violent and that people genuinely fought to survive at times. Sometimes they are metaphorically fighting to have enough food for their families and sometimes they are literally fighting with drug or gang warfare. Unbeknownst to me, I was throwing myself into the fire when I was hired by one of the most violent cities in Texas. I went from an idyllic life seeing violence and criminals only on TV to being thrust into the ugly reality. Our professional culture has traditionally been one of machismo and invulnerability therefore any time something we see affects us, it is seen as a sign of weakness. This is what brought me down. I never dealt with what I saw.
Shootings, stabbings, assaults, and homicides are a daily event in some areas and my youthful naiveté worked to shield me from the devastation I routinely walked through. Then came the pediatric calls. It began with a mother who decided to take a nap with her six day old son. She rolled over in her sleep and suffocated him. After transferring care at the hospital, I lost it. I ran to a nearby bathroom and sobbed uncontrollably. When I admitted I was struggling with the result of the call, my crew at the time belittled me and proceeded to tell as many dead baby jokes as they could. This taught me to keep my mouth shut and began my metamorphosis into a walking time bomb.
Soon after I ran a call for an unconscious child. We arrived to find a 3 year old girl beaten unconscious. Her mother stood impassively in the room stating that she “wouldn’t stop crying so I beat her until she was quiet.” This young girl was cheated from a normal life by a mother who succumbed to mental illness and pure evil. Somehow she survived her two depressed skull fractures, subarachnoid and subdural hematomas, and the multiple facial, rib, and long bone fractures. I met her by chance a year later and while I was overjoyed to see her alive, she will never be fully functioning with her head injuries. There was the infant whose father became intoxicated and physically abused him. The poor boy had bite marks, bruises, and assorted trauma covering his entire body. I watched the mother arrive from the laundromat and attempt to defend the father stating that the child inflicted those injuries upon himself. They just kept coming without a break. Time and time again, I was forced to interject myself into travesties of parenting. Death and destruction seemed to follow my ambulance around. The emotional strain ate away at my sanity.
Then came the fateful day that broke me. To quote the unforgettable President Roosevelt, April 15th, 2015 is the “date which will live in infamy.” My engine crew and I were dispatched to a 3 year old shooting victim. We arrived to find the father and his two friends enjoying a relaxing cigarette on the driveway as if they didn’t have care in the world. As I stepped through the front door, I encountered the hellish sight that will haunt my dreams until the day I die. There was blood everywhere and a long streak across the floor into the kitchen around the corner. It was frighteningly like a movie scene where someone had attempted to drag a body out of sight to hide it.
I found two police officers frantically doing CPR on a beautiful blonde, blue-eyed girl lying on the tile floor. When I stepped forward to begin my assessment, I saw the damage was done. This poor young girl had been shot by a large caliber rifle at close range between the eyes. The entrance wound was relatively small as they tend to be but the exit wound was horrific. I can never bleach that image out of my mind. I would give nearly anything to erase that event from my memory. As the ambulance crew arrived, we decided that we wanted to give this beautiful child the loving attention she had obviously not been afforded in life. We refused to leave her laying here on the floor where her father had discarded her. He murdered her in cold blood amidst a custody battle with his ex-wife. We gently carried her to the stretcher and performed every life saving measure we have been taught over the years even though we knew all too well that it was futile. The doctor at the hospital made the decision we all knew had to be made and pronounced her dead.
After talking to my crew and trying to keep it together, I and several of my coworkers decided to go home on sick leave. I cried myself to sleep that night in what turned out to be the last undisturbed sleep I would have for quite some time. The next day I went to the grocery store with my wife and began to see the enormity of how it had affected me. I snapped and nearly fought with a man in the parking lot over some perceived insult. While walking through the store, I saw that little girl standing next to me in the aisle. I did a double take and realized it was my mind playing tricks on me.
I began to see this girl’s ghost everywhere. It was always in my peripheral vision and when I would look over she would be gone. I began to wake up in the middle of the night fighting people/monsters in my dreams. I was horribly depressed and suffered from extreme anxiety. I saw threats and danger everywhere. I reached out to a therapist. I got my doctor to prescribe antidepressants. Things improved somewhat but I still struggled as so many of us do. I couldn’t admit to anyone that I was tormented because that meant I wasn’t “man enough” to do the job. I was fighting a losing battle.
I tell you this story because what turned my life around and pulled me out of my nosedive was the realization that I wasn’t alone in my torment. I felt humiliated and weak. I was ashamed that I was broken. I then encountered a group of individuals who have been down the very same road that I was traveling. The common bond between the thousands of us in that group is that we have all seen things that no person is supposed to see and we now have demons. We are soldiers, firefighters, paramedics, and cops. They taught me that everything I was experiencing was normal and provided the advice, support, and comradery to help me climb back upright.
Our mission in this profession is to help others at all costs but to do that, we must first help ourselves and those standing to our left and right. Talk to your coworkers. Open up to someone when they look like they are struggling because they might just need to see that they aren’t alone. It is not weakness to stand up to your demons! Do not be afraid to ask for help. Seek counseling. Accept medication if you need a helping hand for a while. These demons may be able to take us down when we stand alone but when we stand together, they do not stand a chance. I ask you to stand with me and proclaim at the top of our lungs that WE WILL NOT GO QUIETLY INTO THE NIGHT!
My demons and my career may have broken me temporarily but I am now refurbished and tougher than ever. I use these experiences to shape my life and reach out to those around me. Do the same. Do not be ashamed. Do not be afraid. Do not succumb to your demons and become yet another statistic.
– Story written by an anonymous Texas firefighter/paramedic with 12 years on the job.