This entire pandemic experience is going to make us better.
In the end, it will all come down to the decisions we make and the way we choose to move forward.
So here’s a story about my father, boats, and holding our course.
My dad served in the Navy when he was young and it was beyond obvious to anyone that ever met him, the impact that his sailing experiences had on him. The Navy had left him with a passion for the water.
From ocean faring on a massive battleship to fishing the local lakes where we grew up, to cruising the mighty and magnificent St. Lawrence River, when we had the time, the water was the place to be. We always had a family boat, from speedy family ski boats to the simplest aluminum fisher. Each boat was bought used, had older model motors and often times after market equipment, but to me, every one of our boats represented the perfect manifestation of proficiency and preparation.
My dad would equip, maintain and prepare a boat like nothing else. His decades old engines were tuned to perfection. The gas tank was rarely below full and the boat was always clean. Safety items were non-negotiable. There were the standard items like life jackets, ropes, lights and oars, but there was also always spare gas, a hand scribbled parts lists and the most reliable item of all - his tool box.
Yet, beyond the nautical gear, tools and gas, was the true mainsail of our boat life; my old man’s presence. The most valuable nautical asset ever in our family boat was the sum and substance of his experiences, interests and curiosities about the waterways. My dad was a student of the entire process. Maybe that’s why we also call a boat a craft.
Regardless of a pleasure cruise, a fishing trip or a simple ferrying of camp supplies, he would read the water and the skies continuously. He would study the depths and the shallows, call out the perpetual landmarks on shore and he always gave the known shoals plenty of berth. He knew when to be on the throttle and when to let her skim. In those rare events where nature defied prediction, I always admired the man’s ability to adjust to the storm and navigate on.
“A ship at harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.”
Something feels different.
What the hell is it? You tell me.
Fear? Anxiety? Uncertainty? Panic? Loneliness?
My neighborhood, your neighborhood; I’m sure they look very similar. Empty parks, empty streets, no kids at school bus stops, vacant campuses, restaurants and stores are all closed and even if we do get out of the house, we find people in masks passing each other, further apart than they ever used to.
It’s like we’ve all been placed into a national ‘time out.’
“Go stand in the corner by yourself. Think about your decisions. Think about what matters.”
Nothing like a global pandemic to serve as a great big, stinging slap in the face reminder - we do not control what happens. We only control our response.
So lets do this. Let’s take on the crisis, reframe things and tell ourselves what we’re really feeling.
You have a patch on your uniform, some alphabet soup after your name and certificates in your file. Every shift you roll to the scene in powerful machines that announce ‘help has arrived.’ You have all the acronyms and protocols rehearsed and memorized. On scene, you know how to put one objective in front of another; you can even adapt a little along the way. Maybe you have ‘seen a thing or two’ in the past few years, experience is really piling up. You know how to do the job, you know where to go and you know when to be there.
Your career feels like a full cup. Now what?
You didn’t come this far...
To wrap up our series on responder values, a short story:
A young couple decide to go for a walk along a quiet sandy beach, just before sunset. Hand in hand they stroll along the edge of the warm surf. The waves leave soft white lumps of foam before they recess back to the sea. Ahead of the couple on the beach, an old man is also walking. He is moving slowly, almost gingerly along the water’s edge. Every few steps, he stops, slowly bends over and picks something up, then walks into the surf about knee deep, places that something into the water and then goes back to his slow stroll along the beach.
He does this over and over. The young couple, curious, walk closer behind the old man to see what he is doing, so intently.
Grit. Four letters, a crisp and terse pronunciation, grit might be my favorite responder value to appraise. It can bring up a lot of imagery; sleeves rolled up, dirt on your hands, sweat on your face, fatigue in your eyes, a load on your shoulders. However, grit is not saved only for cowboys, wild land firefighters, oil platform workers or special operation teams. Grit, as a value, in its simplest form, is found where shit gets done. Teachers, delivery persons, volunteer project managers, hospital maintenance staff, stay at home parents, the crews on the trash trucks in our neighborhoods and yes, especially you, the first responders - can all be examples of grit.
There is a lot already happening on scene by the time we set down and step off of a medevac helicopter. All the major rescue services are already in place: police, fire rescue, EMS; all deep into their work. As a medical flight crew, we are often the last to arrive, as the call for the highest level of patient care available takes place after the seriousness of the scene has been determined.
Tonight, the seriousness was staggeringly obvious as soon as we walked up.
An SUV had struck a stopped tractor trailer from behind at a traffic light on a local highway. The SUV was halfway under the rear of the trailer, pinned in an almost unbelievable wedge of sheared metal and glass. The roof of the vehicle had already been removed, chains and stabilization braces in place. Emergency lights everywhere, strobing the entire scene in red and blue. A dozen responders were surrounding the SUV, working to free the still entrapped driver. Then I see the sheet draped stretcher, just to the right side of the vehicle.
This is already a fatal scene.
Chapter 5 of 5
We have arrived. Chapter 5 of 5. But I won’t call it the final chapter. The whole point of this is for all of us to continue to write more chapters in our stories. We can do this. And we will do it, together.
Just to drive home a point from last week, as we go about our jobs, we know it’s not a one-person gig. There are always times we need to call for backup.
If an engine company arrives on a scene and finds a house fully engulfed, they will call for additional engines/ladders/manpower/etc.
If a police officer finds himself being shot at, he will call for backup. Every officer with a working radio will respond.
If an ambulance crew arrives on the scene of a car crash with multiple victims, they will call for additional ambulances and other resources.
We call for backup all the time. So why are we so afraid to call for back up when we need help with our mental health? This stigma has to go. If you need help dealing with the things going around in your head, call for backup!! There is strength in numbers. Your brothers and sisters will be there for you. And I hope you will be there for them.
Chapter 4 of 5
Welcome back, my friends, to the blog that never ends…well, it will, but we still have some important things to discuss, so come inside, come inside.
For the record, if you didn’t do your homework – watching/reading “Bringing Out the Dead” – it’s okay. There’s obviously no grades here. But I highly recommend it when you get some free time (what’s that, right?).
So, we left off with a question: What do we do about the stigma? The PTSI? The suicides?
The obvious answer is: we have to eliminate the stigma. We have to stop treating mental health as the elephant in the room no one speaks about. We have to spread the word that it’s ok to talk about these things, that it’s ok to not be ok.
This edition of responder values won’t take very long at all, because accountability is really, pretty simple.
We are accountable or we are not.
On or off.
Do or do not.
Accept that we have an obligation to show up in the world around us, or, quite simply, don’t. So be advised, this is what our work is about. If you decide to not show up or you decide you’re not willing to contribute to others; there really is no place for you in first response. Sorry, not sorry.
I did say that accountability is simple, not easy.
So, what is accountability?
Chapter 3 of 5
Here I am again, Lord, asking your help fooooorrrrr a sinner…..oh, wait, not that one, or is it? Last week we looked at some of our brothers and sisters who made the unfortunate decision to end their lives. This week, I want you to take a long, hard look at your organization, your colleagues, and, especially (and probably the hardest), at yourself. At how we respond to this crisis.