Chapter 2 of 5
Hi. Thanks for coming back around.
This week may be a little tough. You know my story, now I want to introduce you to a few of our brothers and sisters who, sadly, did not make the decision I did. They completed suicide. For various reasons. Could they have been prevented? Maybe? Probably…but we’ll never know.
The first two are in the public domain.
First is Robert O’Donnell. Some of you may know the name. Others know the deed. Robert was a firefighter/paramedic for the Midland, TX Fire Department in the 1980s. On October 14th, 1987, it was Robert who rescued “Baby Jessica” McClure from the well she had fallen into while playing in her backyard. Robert fought back claustrophobia to save this toddler’s life.
In the aftermath, there was a TV movie, numerous interviews, and tons of print articles. Robert liked the fame a little too much, and when it was gone, it left a void in him. His fellow firefighters constantly razzed him about his fleeting fame.
And Robert thought about the other child calls he had responded to over the years. What about those children, some who lived and others who didn’t. What about them? Were they any less important.
Then came April 19th, 1995. Robert watched the aftermath of the bombing of the MurrahFederal Building in Oklahoma City. As rescuers carried the broken bodies of children from the daycare center. His wife quoted him as saying “Those guys are gonna need a lot of help.”
Four days later, Robert went into a field with a gun, and ended his life. The note he left read, in part, “No help from anyone but family.” Where was his fire family?
Nicole Mittendorf was a firefighter/paramedic for the Fairfax County, VA Fire Department. Nicole was proud of what she did and just wanted to serve the citizens of Fairfax. Unfortunately, Nicole, along with other female members of the department, were victims of bullying and sexual harassment. She felt she got no support from above and was forced to deal with it.
My brothers and sisters, this has no place in our business. Good natured ribbing, “busting chops”, that’s not what we are talking about. Of course, that could lead to worse, so we need to know when to stop. But the outright harassment and worse has got to stop. Everyone on the fire apparatus, ambulance, police car, at the dispatch center, etc., have earned their place there. Everyone deserves the same respect as we all are there to serve the public, we are all doing the same job. Cut this crap out!
For Nicole, it got too much to bear. She disappeared. Her car was found in the Shenandoah National Forest, and her body was later found hanging from a tree. Her husband has not made her note public, but he says it raises as many questions as it answered.
Velma (not her real name, although she looked like the Scooby-Doo character) was one of my agency’s “loyalty rewards customers”. But Velma had multiple legitimate medical problems. She had asthma, Lupus, diabetes, among others and was on numerous medications. And she would always wait to call 911 until she was barely able to breathe and arriving units would frequently find her unconscious.
I transported her about a dozen times myself over a year or so. On only one occasion, about halfway through, were we actually able to talk. I asked her why she waited so long to call. She replied, “I didn’t want to be a burden on anyone.” And before I could say anything else, she said, “I know how we treated the frequent fliers.”
My brothers and sisters, that was a gut check. Velma was an EMS provider in the Philadelphia area who had to be retired due to her medical issues. She missed it desperately. I told her to call sooner, that she was one of us, that we’d take care of her. She smiled at that.
But, unfortunately, on the morning after Thanksgiving in 2014, I was on duty when we got the call for a cardiac arrest at the all too familiar address. Velma was gone. She started feeling bad at Thanksgiving dinner, went home, and never called. It wasn’t ruled a suicide, but I just can’t think of it in any other way. You just never really know who is on your stretcher, unless you take the time to really talk to them.
Nick Albright was a fellow paramedic at an agency where I work part time. I didn’t really get to know Nick, unfortunately, but we would talk briefly at shift change, or at the hospital in passing. Nick’s widow, Lindsey, spoke at length with me about him, and is allowing me to share his story, in hopes it will help you write another chapter.
Nick had long term mental health issues, which he had under control with medication. He became an EMT and then a medic to give back, to help others as he had been helped. Lindsey told me being a paramedic “really saved him”. That he was truly happy when treating patients.
But along the line, Nick developed epilepsy and had to be taken off the road. Co-workers would razz him while he was in dispatch, calling him, among other things, the “floppy fish”. Nick didn’t want any of it to happen, of course. Nick’s seizures got under control with more medication and he went back to the streets.
Nick was a hands-on, happy father, but as time went on, he began having bouts of depression. Lindsey told me he wrote, at one point, “I have a wife that loves me unconditionally, and three kids who love me and I’m not happy and I don’t understand why.”
Nick’s depression worsened. He paid less attention to his family. Doctors kept changing his meds but not giving them time to work before changing them again. He felt broken. He began to drink more, and to walk out of work. And through it all his family was afraid to try and get him help because they were afraid he might lose his job.
Nick had always told people he was afraid to get a gun because he might use it on himself. But one day, things got too much. He went to a store, bought a gun, and an hour later he was gone. This blog is not to discuss gun control policies and laws. Our brother Nick is gone. And I think maybe we could have…should have done better.
I came up with the idea for the presentation this blog has evolved from while driving home from the EMS Today Conference in Charlotte, NC in 2018. I had been attending various mental health lectures and it occurred to me I might be able to help some folks with my perspective on the subject. The nine hour drive afforded me plenty of time. (I know this one’s going long, folks, but please stay with me).
I got back home and began to do some research. I looked at various case studies and the common theme was : “WE NEVER SAW IT COMING”. I thought, “How is this possible? With all of the emphasis on PTSD, and mental health, how could you not see it coming?”
And then, it happened to us. And. We. Never. Saw. It. Coming.
Matt Clancy was a paramedic for the Baltimore County Fire Department. He worked part time where I worked full time. I was one of Matt’s paramedic instructors. Sometimes, I was his supervisor. But most importantly, Matt was my friend.
Matt was one of those happy people who always tried to make you laugh. He was always joking around with his coworkers, his friends, and his patients. Oh, he was serious when he needed to be. He was an excellent paramedic, the kind you would trust with your children (I’m not just saying that because I helped teach him..). Matt loved his wife (who has given me permission to share his story) and children.
But one night, Matt put a gun to his head, and ended his life.
And we never saw it coming. His wife never saw it coming. His mother never saw it coming. He left a note, and I am not privy to it’s contents, but to my knowledge, it didn’t answer the fundamental question.
Matt’s passing left a big hole in our community, and in our hearts. And we’ll never know why this happened. Could we have talked to him? Was it something we said? Was it something we didn’t say?
My brothers and sisters, there are all too many other stories that fall into this chapter. Maybe you know someone. Maybe you loved that someone. Maybe you, too, came close to being that someone. But all of these stories have faces. All of these faces were people. All ofthese people had loved ones, whether they believed it or not. And believe me, all of them left a hole.
Let’s bookmark this for now. We have so much more to talk about. And, to paraphrase Captain John Paul Jones, “We have not yet begun to fight” this.