Rise and Fall of Heroes

July 3rd, 2012 § Comments § permalink

It was almost 40 years ago when I first talked to Mike. I was a young Explorer Scout with Washington County Fire District #1 and he was a veteran fire lieutenant. I remember sitting in his office listening to his stories about the life of a firefighter. It impacted me deeply and is a part of my journey to become a professional firefighter.Bunker gear

I always looked up to Mike, as a mentor and a role model. I find it interesting who we pick as mentors and heroes in our life. Some people just fit and Mike was one of those people. As a 15 year old, wet-behind-the-ears, punk kid, Mike seemed so much older and wiser – and yet, at only 30 years old, he was still trying to figure out life himself. At that age, 15 years is quite the spread.

“For most of us, it is difficult to leave the friendships, the lifestyle, and the brotherhood.”

When I was 30, and well seasoned as a paramedic-firefighter, Mike and I were assigned to the same shift. He was my officer, even though I worked on the rescue. It was an interesting time to be in our maturing fire district. We just merged three large fire agencies into one and fire EMS professionals were struggling to gain greater recognition in an agency locked in tradition.

At the same time, my career was beginning to take on a new life. Within a year or two, I would move off the line and into a management/leadership role. Though we never really talked about it, I sensed Mike was going through his own personal struggles. I didn’t know how to connect with him and we really never talked. This was hard for me – as it is for most accolades when their mentor falls from grace.

Our lives move forward and many things go on. Mike retired from the fire district in 1994 and I quit in 1995. I know, for most of us, it is difficult to leave. The friendships, the lifestyle, and the bonds are nearly invincible. It truly is a brotherhood.

Saturday morning I was sitting in a church listening to my wife’s uncle preaching when I watched a man and woman take a seat a few rows in front of us. Other than his long white ponytail, they were relatively unremarkable. But when he turned his head, I saw something familiar. I mentioned the familiarity to my wife as I continued to watch for more clues.

By the end of the service I was certain it was my old hero Mike. I approached him with my hand extended, “Mike Hart?” I asked. He looked up with curiosity, recognized me, and we embraced. I had tears in my eyes for at least 10 minutes as we stood and chatted. Eventually we moved outside where we talked for at least an hour and a half. He was the last person I thought I’d ever see in a church, but I know a few have thought that about me too.

We told stories, caught up on former firefighters, and shared life experiences. It was a providential encounter and both of us were blessed. To think I’d almost skipped the opportunity to attend church with my family? I’m so glad I didn’t. Mike has clearly regained his footing and will live on as an important part of my life’s journey.



Time to Make Some Changes?

June 23rd, 2012 § Comments § permalink

Years ago we enacted legislation to protect our patients, improve professionalism, and improve the standards of care. I’m old enough to remember the shoddy ambulance practices that existed here in Portland. We had the best of intentions – we wanted to get rid of those funeral home operators who were only trying to squeeze a little more profit out of their vehicles. We wanted people to get the best of care. We wanted to stop the crazy madness of call jumping, fist fights over patients, and scoop and run transport – without any standards.

[Note: This post is inspired by This Post, by The Happy Medic.]

Credit: Flickr

Interestingly, in those days, we, the paramedics, could refuse to transport someone who didn’t need an ambulance – it wasn’t in the protocols, but it was easy to do. Also, most of us really, really cared about being professionals, and we didn’t really need these regulations.Now, 35 years later, those laws are cast in stone. Most, if not all of the shoddy ambulance operators have sold out and moved to warmer climates, and the profession has changed – substantially. Now, those concrete laws are like shackles around our feet. Eight minute response time requirements are only needed for a small percentage of our calls. Eight responders on every call – the same.

There needs to be changes, but it feels very daunting to even begin that process.

Killing Us Softly

June 14th, 2012 § Comments § permalink

It’s no secret that sleep deprivation is a killer. Too little sleep is linked with depression, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. We are lifesavers, but we are killing ourselves while we save others. Whether working in a system that requires overtime, working overtime to make up for low pay, or working in a busy system that requires 24, 48, or longer shifts – your life is ebbing away.

Is it worth it?

I see older coworkers who are barely able to put one foot in front of the other. They are depressed, broken, sick, and tired. Back issues, arthritis, obesity, and other burnout symptoms are rampant. It saddens me to see this.

What good does it do for us to save the whole world, but lose the lives of ourselves and our families?

When we were young we had visions of saving the world. We didn’t care about long hours and poor working conditions, we were pioneers in the exciting world of EMS and we were willing to do whatever it took to save people. My first full-time EMS job paid $4.10/hr. I worked 48/48s, and we ran 32 calls a shift. We learned to sleep and eat whenever – fortunately, most of the hospitals fed us well, and we ran our tails off. I was 21 years old and literally, living the dream! That first year, I made $6000 total.

That first EMS job cost me my marriage. I was either working or sleeping – that didn’t work well.

For the next 15 years, I got one of those elusive fire-medic positions. My pay tripled, my hours were cut by a third, and our call volume was only 10% of the big city ambulance gig. At first I was bored, but I now see how that saved my life.

I left EMS 16 years ago and completed by degree and began to work on post-graduate education. I got remarried, found a new career, and we have a couple of kids. Unfortunately, when the economy tanked, I lost my job – along with about 40 million other people. I figured that the best way to keep my house and feed my family, was to go back into EMS. So, I got re-licensed and found a job as an ambulance jockey.

It was fun to come back. I really never wanted to leave – and I always missed the challenges of transport – something many fire medics don’t get to do.

But a month ago, I had to take a medical leave. I didn’t hurt myself. I don’t have a medical condition. I am just exhausted. Because I have no seniority, I’ve been working nights. Because we had a house in the country, I’ve been commuting three hours – round-trip. It was killing me, killing my family, and destroying our quality of life.

We decided long ago that we had to move, but because we were now upside down on our mortgage, we couldn’t sell the house. Because our income is 30% less than my previous career, we were barely surviving. We drive very old cars, rarely eat out, and don’t take vacations – other than an occasional camping trip. Although we are not in debt, financially, we are in debt emotionally, physically, and medically.

Many of my younger colleagues are so eager to get the adrenaline rush they don’t see the path they’re on.

For the past few years we avoided house repairs, car maintenance, and medical/dental check ups. The co-pays are too expensive and we didn’t want to go into debt. Our lives are literally falling apart around us.

Being older, wiser, and with a few more trips around the infield, I can see this happening. The sad thing is, many of my coworkers didn’t see the job changing around them. And now they’re trapped. Many of my younger colleagues are so eager to get the adrenaline rush we all used to live on, they don’t see the path they’re on.

Something has to change – at least in the for-profit EMS world.

But even the non-profit sector has some self examination to do. Recently, I applied for a management position at a non-profit, hospital-based system. The crews work 48/96s – and apparently, this is causing some big issues. Safety and crew health are being negatively affected, but without hiring additional personnel, they can’t really change the system.

As a profession, we need to look at the issues, address the problems, and create positive solutions. What good does it do for us to save the whole world, but lose the lives of ourselves and our families?

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