Life is a special gift.
For most that might seem like a generic or bland statement, but I think it’s something we all take for granted. I know I have lost sight of life’s meaning more times than I’m comfortable admitting. Not because I’m crazy, but because I’m normal like everyone else and sometimes we’re just too busy to appreciate the amazing things we have been afforded in our limited time on this planet. Not long ago I was in one of those times where life seemed like something we all just had, and it really wasn’t anything special… but then this statement scrolled across the headlines of my thought process in a particular moment, and suddenly I was (again) reminded of how amazing a gift my life is. I was seated, very uncomfortably, in a metal chair on the side of the roadway halfway dressed up in a bright orange chemical protective suit. Some would say we looked like spacemen. Explorers of a planet unknown, destined to find an alien life form or some never-before-seen landscape that may be inhabitable in the future… but to us we just joked it’s an oversized body bag with a viewing window and footies where it’s almost impossible to manipulate even the most simple of objects with your hands. It was raining, it was uncomfortable, and we had already been there for a few hours on that roadside waiting for the word go. A joint effort between two emergency hazardous materials response teams had amassed a group of special technicians to recover the body of an individual that decided his mid-twenties were a good time to end his life by sealing himself inside a vehicle, and creating a mixture of chemicals toxic enough to kill him in seconds. Life is a special gift.
During the course of this 8-hour incident, it occurred to me that 2017 has been an incredible year of ups and downs in my life and my career, and that it could all be summed up in that statement: life is a special gift. I decided that day that towards the end of the year I would publish something sharing some of my experiences. Maybe a book, maybe a blog post, maybe something else. Either way, it seemed appropriate that I share with the world the (limited) details that I’m allowed to share, because nobody should ever get to the point where they feel like life is anything other than something that should be appreciated and celebrated.
If I had to venture a guess, I would say that most people in the general populous of society have a different and non-reinforced view of life and death. Sure, friends and loved ones pass away. Maybe some even stand with them at the hospital or in a nursing home as they fade through the final moments of their time on earth, but not many get to experience tragedy and life-altering circumstances in the exaggerated, full-speed, high-definition fashion that emergency responders and military personnel do. Quite honestly, I wouldn’t wish it on most people to see what we see. It’s not normal and it’s not for everyone… but it is sometimes necessary to look at the experiences of others and realize how special this thing called life is. These thoughts were again sobering earlier this year as I had to stand on the side of the roadway in the misting rain and look a couple of guys in the eye and reassure them that nothing could’ve been done differently. We performed perfectly and without error… but we still watched someone take their last breaths as they burned and suffocated inside a car that was crushed against a tree and melting amidst flames… 100 yards from their driveway. The counseling session we held a couple days later helped a lot, especially for the couple of new guys who hadn’t ever seen anything like this before. Still, the forces beyond my control didn’t think that I valued life enough, so 10+ months later on a medical call to a residence 100 yards from that scene I was greeted by a young man walking with a cane. A hug and a handshake were followed by stories of 19 neurological and orthopedic surgeries and months of intensive (still ongoing) rehab that allowed him to walk again… because guys who responded to that scene pulled this guy out of that same burning car, severed foot and all, and were able to save his life and his ability to walk. Life is special, and we all walk a thin line between forgetting that fact as we go about our day, and having it all flash before our eyes as seconds mean the difference between living and dying.
Even in situations where the value of life is apparent, sometimes those thoughts go by the wayside. They weren’t immediately present earlier this year when myself and my partner crawled down a dark, smoke-filled, 6th floor hallway before making the decision to open the door to an apartment and face whatever fire was behind it… with no water. There could have been someone inside. We didn’t know. What we did know was this was a 9-story tall retirement home filled with a couple hundred people who we regularly encountered on calls to help them because they had fallen on the floor and, due to their age or health, couldn’t get themselves up. Sure we had a hose. An axe too, and a thermal imaging camera that allowed us to see heat signatures through the thick smoke. We didn’t have water, however, because we didn’t have enough people. A group of volunteers responding to a fire in a high-rise building during the day, during the week, when most of our personnel were at work or with their families. We did what we had to do with what we had on hand to make sure someone else didn’t lose their life… because the potential was very real. The fire was in the kitchen, and it rolled across the ceiling and over my head as I tried (and failed) to put it out with an extinguisher and my partner disappeared past me into the one-bedroom apartment to hastily search and hopefully get a window open. I couldn’t get the fire knocked down, so I went looking for him, couldn’t find him, panicked slightly, and then ran into a bedroom fan and fell forward into a laundry basket full of clothes. I heard him ask me if I was ok, and I responded “yeah, lets get the hell out of here and get water”. We retreated to the hallway and waited for our hose to fill with water. We had more people then, and could actually fight the fire properly. There was nobody in the apartment. The occupant had left a candle burning as he drove his power chair around to various rooms in the building visiting and chatting with friends… but we didn’t know that. He doesn’t live in that building anymore.
The importance of life is, to me, never reinforced in a more powerful manner than through seeing the bad AND the good that comes with this job. Through the death, dismemberment, sadness, and dismay sometimes the only positive is the value that your life seems to reach when all else seems lost. Then there are the miracles of continuing life created by those whose job it is to train hard in order to stop the events of an incident from claiming a life. Many of us will never forget the fire earlier this year that claimed the life of two teenagers that was started by a child playing with a torch lighter. Nobody will forget that night or value the life he lives quite like a friend of mine who I was standing with when he located their remains. He and I went to high school together and have been friends since we were younger than the two victims. In contrast, I will value life a lot more after Thanksgiving of this year when I was stopped in my tracks by a two minute video on Facebook. Back in May of this year, we responded to a vehicle accident in a particularly well known, particularly dangerous curve of a road not far from our firehouse. I drove the engine there and had a fairly new firefighter riding backwards. This would be our second extrication of the shift. It was raining… again… and the car ended up on its top, in the kudzu, 35 feet down an embankment between some trees. Two of the occupants made it out and the other had to be lifted out in a basket by a rope system that we anchored to our heavy rescue truck. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and was told he may never walk or talk again. Over the course of the year, the firefighter riding with us that night shared a page on Facebook with me that was dedicated to informing his friends about his road to recovery. On Thanksgiving Day, he posted a video standing on his own, talking, moving around, and thanking all of his followers for all of their support while subsequently wishing them a happy Thanksgiving. That was the first time I commented on that page. I’m pretty sure all of his friends and family wondered who the random guy was commenting on his post.
Over the course of 2017 I’ve worked with some incredible individuals who have gone above and beyond to save lives and make a difference. I have been witness to not only some horrible tragedies, but also some amazing survival stories that have made me ultimately realize one thing:
Life is a Special Gift.
The holidays are always a particularly difficult time for me. The upcoming anniversaries of the passing of a few of my friends coupled with the memories of the events that have taken place make me realize just how many people are going through this season without someone they care about, or with the memories forever imprinted in their minds of the horrible things they have seen. Throughout the year 2017 I have read and seen so many things about those who have been affected in some manner by sickness, death, terrorism, tragedy, etc. I have done my best to comfort those who have spoken to me about these things and in turn, I have helped myself realize just how amazing my life is and how thankful I am to be able to live like I do surrounded by the people I’m surrounded by. Life is very special and should not be taken for granted.
In my off time this year, I managed to acquire a few good stories, some new scars, and even a few stitches. I have made new friends, reinforced old friendships, and found myself in a relationship with a woman who makes me happier than I ever have been before. It’s been difficult to maintain my motivation at work sometimes because of a few circumstances beyond my control, but things are looking up and 2018 WILL be a better year at the best job in the world. I have expanded my knowledge of life-saving techniques thanks to some amazing instructors, and as a result of this training I never leave home without a tourniquet in my pocket and a medical bag in my car. My day-to-day life is exciting, fun, happy, and forever special to me because of the things that the fire service has exposed me to. I can’t wait to keep living this life I live and see what comes next. I close this post with a reminder to everyone reading it.
Please, please, please do not take life for granted. Spend time with your families. Do not hold in the feelings you experience when something bad happens. Share and rejoice in the good the world has to offer, and always, ALWAYS do your best to help others in a time of need. And don’t judge someone until you listen to their story. They might just tell you something you’ve never heard before.
Merry Christmas Everyone, and Have a Happy New Year!