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.
The reality is, everyone in this business will be affected by something they see at some point in their career. Some folks are just better at hiding it than others. Some folks are just better liars than others….there, I said it. Because if you can honestly tell me that seeing a dead child, or any of the horrors one human can perpetrate on another, does not bother you at all, you are either a liar or not human. I’m sorry, but you know it, and I know it.
And like we’ve discussed. You are going to see bad things and they are going to bother you and that’s ok. It’s your resilience in how you deal with it and bounce back from it that makes you stronger. And it can be done. And some folks can do it better than others, and that’s ok, too.
Look, you don’t know what someone is going through if they won’t open up about it. And no one will know if you are struggling if you don’t tell someone. Oh, the signs will be there, but to really know, to really get it out there and start the process of resiliency, it needs to be talked about. And like we’ve noted, it’s just a start.
And there are the folks out there who brush it off and say we are not worthy of having PTSI or any mental health issues. But the fact remains, our brothers and sisters are killing themselves and it is up to ALL of us to put a stop to it.
How many of you are educators? Raise your hand, keep it up, come on….EMT/Paramedic instructors? Fire or Police Academy instructors? Dispatch trainers? CPR/ACLS/PALS/etc. instructors? How many of you are field training officers or preceptors? How many of you have been roped into precepting because the preceptor called off?
How many of you have shown a new EMT where the equipment is on the ambulance? How many have shown the probie around the firehouse? How many have shown a rookie the “right” was to fill out the accident investigation form? How many have shown the new dispatcher tricks and tips to be more efficient?
How many have shown the new person where the bathroom is at the station? How many have helped the new person cook their first station meal?
I think by now, you get the picture, most, if not all of you are raising their hands. (Don’t ask how I know 😉)
We ALL have the ability to cut off this stigma before the new people even get to know what it is. We have the opportunity, and, I submit, the obligation, to tell them that it’s ok to talk about things, that it’s ok to not be ok. We have to get them early, before it’s too late.
You know, I searched on First Responder Suicides for the month of December. I was going to be a little dramatic with “X number of Emergency Services providers have completed suicide since Chapter 1 was posted”. Overly dramatic…yeah probably. And I know there have been several. I hope their pain has ended, and I am sorry they could not find the help they needed.
But what I found was encouraging. Numerous articles on Mental Health Awareness programs around the country, and around the world. More than a few news reports about new initiatives to help first responders needing that boost. The stigma is lifting. We have come so far. But we are still losing family members. There is more work to do.
The New Year is upon us. And no, I’m not going to throw that “New Year – New You” BS at you. But the New Year is 365 days of new possibilities. And guess what? It’s leap year. You get 366 days! Every day is, in fact, a gift (I hate clichés to, but it’s the truth).
I am, however, issuing a challenge. No….no Tide pods or dancing around cars or any of that nonsense (which does keep us gainfully employed I must admit). The number of suicides in emergency services has been increasing every year. I challenge all of you to get that number down in 2020. How? Everything we’ve talked about. Talk to someone. Be open. Eliminate that stigma. Be encouraging. Reach out. Have everyone’s back. We can do this, together.
I often think back to that night on the window ledge. I wonder if anyone would have cared if I had jumped. I’d like to think, yes. I wonder if it would have made a difference. I would certainly like to think I have made a difference as an EMT and Paramedic since then. At least a little here and there.
But, in thinking about it, I have come up with the top five reasons why I am glad I did not jump. I believe it may help you along your journey, so you may want to write this down. Ready? Here they come….
1) My wife, Joy.
2) My son, Gus
3) My son, Tim
4) My son, Chris
5) My son, Jacob
If I had ended my life all those years ago, I would not have met Joy, and we would not have brought our four wonderful, precocious children into this world. They are my world. And if you are curious, yes, four boys….it’s less about parenting and more about crowd control.
Need a 6th? OK. My brother from another mother, Captain Paul Saba of the Riverside County, CA, fire department (CAL-FIRE). He is my best friend. We only had just got to know each other when I almost jumped. He was a year behind me at Maritime. But for whatever reason, we just clicked. And even though he is near 3000 miles away, we call/text each other fairly regularly and when we need to talk about something, we talk.
7th? Guess what? I did get to fly. Not quite how I expected. For 8 years, I was a flight paramedic for Stony Brook University Hospital on Long Island and for Life Lion Critical Care in Hershey, PA (no, they don’t pay in chocolate, but you do get discounts!). I got to combine my childhood dreams with my adult perfectly suited job.
My point is this: (and here comes another cliché) When you feel you have hit rock bottom, you have nowhere to go but up. Things can get better, they will get better. It may take some time and effort, for sure. But things can always get better, unless you choose to end your life. Then things have precisely zero chance of getting better. You don’t know what your future holds. As another doctor once said “Your future isn’t written yet, so make it a good one.”
I’d like to sum up with this quote:
"That's the way it is. Good days. And bad days. Up days. Down days. Sad days. Happy days. But never a boring day on this job. You do what God has called you to do. You show up. You put one foot in front of another. You get on the rig and you go out and you do the job –which is a mystery. And a surprise. You have no idea when you get on that rig. No matter how big the call. No matter how small. You have no idea what God is calling you to. But he needs you. He needs me. He needs all of us. "
That was said by Father Mychal Judge, Chaplain of the New York City Fire Department, on September 10th, 2001. The next day, he would be officially listed as Fatality #1 in the attacks on the World Trade Center.
My brothers and sisters, if you don’t believe in God, that’s ok. Substitute the deity of your choice. Or call it fate, call it luck, call it karma. But we need to be there for each other. We need to lean on one another because we are family. And I will continue to go around giving the presentation that this blog came from, I will continue to spread the word that it’s ok to not be ok. That we can talk about these things.
And we will talk more here. I thank you for coming with me on this journey. As the great philosopher William Joel once said “These are the last words I have to say…..there will be other words some other day. Ain’t that the story of my life?”
We owe it to Matt Clancy. We owe it to Nick Albright. We owe it to Velma. We owe it to Nicole Mittendorff. We owe it to Robert O’Donnell. We owe it to every emergency services provider who has chosen to end their own life, to be there for each other when times are tough. When we feel we’ve hit rock bottom.
Until no more of our brothers and sisters feel that they have nowhere left to turn.
Until no more of our brothers and sisters feel that suicide is their only way out.
Our mantra of late has been “Everyone goes home!” And amen to that.
But you know what? It would be really great if everyone came back for their next shift, too.
Matt Giacopelli began his EMS career as a cadet at SUNY Maritime College in 1991. Since then, he has spent time in urban, suburban, and rural agencies, doing 911, interfacility, and critical care transports. Having earned his Paramedic certification in 2000, he's been around a few different blocks a few times, but will never say he's seen it all. Matt is currently getting acclimated to his new position as a Captain with Southern York County EMS in Pennsylvania.