My perspective: Death of a firefighter, EMS partner

Losing a partner in this field cuts deeper than in most; here's a reflection on my recent loss and what it means to me

I experienced the death of a coworker recently. It wasn't the first. I would love to think it will be the last, but that's probably not realistic.

This one, however, maybe because of my age or perhaps I'm getting soft, hit me pretty hard. He was a paramedic in his early 40s with a wife and two school-aged kids who succumbed to cancer.

The death of a close friend, a firefighting family member, isn't the stuff of great comedy. Yet, when I reflect on our work life together, what jumps to mind are not only that he was a great medic and person — but the humorous and poignant experiences we shared.

I could post all sorts of cancer statistics pertaining to firefighters, but that's not my purpose.

I am not blowing off the cancer issue. Cancer is a major problem for firefighters and there is all kinds of information on that subject. The IAFF has a new training class on this subject. NFPA 1500 is filled with guidelines about uniform care and fire station design.

It's drilled into all of us now to wear SCBA in any kind of smoke. When I started we didn't even wear them to vehicle fires — you know, cars that have around 1,200 pounds of plastic in them.

A special bond
We all know that losing a coworker in this business is a little different than in other occupations. Especially in a small- or medium-size department where you might spend 30 years with the same person.

That's a lot of time. In this business you literally watch the cycle of life play out before your very eyes.

You watch a new wide-eyed employee come on the job full of enthusiasm. You watch them marry and divorce, remarry, have children and eventually have grand kids.

Along the way, you watch their kids grow up. You attend birthday parties, graduations and the like. You are with them to bury parents and unfortunately sometimes spouses and children. You go through catastrophic illness and accidents of family members with them.

You spend numerous holidays with these people over the years. You eat with them, go to the bathroom next to them and sleep next to them. And that's not to mention attending life-and-death emergencies and going into burning buildings with them.

In the private sector, the death of a coworker is painful, but I can't imagine there is the same closeness.

Let's say you don't like Stan in accounting or Bill in the paint department. Everything Stan does rubs you wrong. So if you have a payroll question, you wait until Stan goes to lunch and ask the other accounting employee.

Bill has an annoying laugh and constantly tells jokes that start out with a rabbi, a Catholic priest and so on. You take your break at a later time than Bill and stay across the room at the annual employee Christmas party.

Spending 24 or even 48 hours with Stan and Bill is a whole different ballgame.

It's about the who
I met my late friend when we worked for a 911 EMS service that covered an unincorporated part of the county. He was a paramedic. I, as the basic EMT, would always drive. He was a joy to drive.

To me, 95 percent of being on an ambulance is who you're with. If you are with a person who gets mad at the silly people we deal with, gets mad at the dispatcher and eventually gets mad at you, it makes for a long day.

He smiled at everything. His patient care was impeccable. You knew if there was time to eat, we were going to eat chicken wings.

I don't think I will ever eat a chicken wing again and not think of him.

My favorite adventure we got into together involved a young woman having a cardiac event. We were called to a residence for a heart attack. We entered the house and found a 40ish woman lying on the couch with one hand on her forehead.

My associate introduced us and asked what the problem was. She smiled and said she was having a heart attack.

A little too cool
She was as calm as I am as I write this and appeared to be in no discomfort. She was not struggling to breath, wasn't sweating and was very matter of fact in her tone.

We asked her to rate her pain on a scale of one to 10 — 10 being unbearable. She immediately and without hesitation answered 10!

I, of course, was skeptical.

She didn't even appear nervous. As I placed a non-rebreather oxygen mask over her face my friend explained to her we would do a 12-lead EKG on her in the ambulance. She smiled and nodded her head.

In the ambulance, I opened a bag of fluid and prepared the intravenous drip set. About that time I heard some beeping coming from the heart monitor.

My paramedic friend was checking leads and looking at the monitor. He looked up at our patient and said, "Ma'am?" I looked at her.

Her mouth was open and her eyes were closed. She had transitioned to the great beyond right in front of us. He calmly retrieved the paddles and applied some jelly. After the announcing "clear," he shocked her.

Her body jumped with the electricity then went limp. But, immediately she opened her eyes and asked what had happened. He smiled and looked at me with a wink, and in his heavy accent said, "Is good now."

He pointed his finger forward demonstratively meaning drive to the hospital very fast, which I did. She survived a near-death event that day because of him.

My story is bittersweet. The bitter part is losing someone so close; the sweet part is being lucky enough to have gotten that close to him. And if you've been in this business long enough, you've got one of those stories.

Let me hear from you.

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