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Firefighting problems put the problems at home in perspective

The uniform tries to hide all the problems, frustrations and disappointments we‘re feeling inside and project a clean, crisp, tough exterior

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When we arrive for a shift, our uniforms remind us that we are entering another world.

The uniform tries to hide all the problems, frustrations and disappointments we‘re feeling inside and project a clean, crisp, tough exterior. Let‘s be honest, the last thing you need on your worst day is me in a distracted and bad mood.

There are days when I get a phone call from home that makes me upset, or changes my cheerful disposition so much that the uniform can‘t hide it anymore.

  • Payroll forgot to add in the overtime day, again?
  • The cat puked in the heating vent?
  • The brand new air conditioner that cleaned out the savings account last month isn‘t working and the installer can‘t come out until tomorrow?
  • Something is wrong with the garbage disposal?
  • Check engine light on the wife‘s car, again?

All things I could try to fix if I was at home but here, in my uniform, all I can do is groan, rub my temples and try to remain calm.

It doesn‘t always work.

There is no setting on the side of my head that lets me shift from home to work like the sleep settings on my phone. As much as we try to check our emotions at the door, we‘re still human.

Sometimes we get a chance to think things through on a quiet afternoon, other times we can make a few phone calls and lean on a neighbor or friend off-duty to come in and lend a hand. But sometimes fate needs to step in and remind us that whatever is going wrong, things can always get worse.

I was having a bad day, or so I thought.

His face was drenched in sweat. The more we wiped it off, the more he seemed to make, as if a stage hand just out of sight was training a hose on our patient‘s head.

His arm was numb, his chest felt a crushing pain he had never known and his eyes found mine as I approached over the shoulder of the engine crew struggling to check his vital signs.

We are taught in paramedic school that patients who are really, truly Sick (capital S Sick) are easy to identify and that there is a face a person makes to truly show fear of death. His sunken eyes and pale face drenched in sweat could be interpreted no other way.

His eyes met mine and told me, “Oh, God, I‘m going to die!” He did not speak. He could not speak.

I saw it and the engine medic saw it. There was a noticeable shift in our efforts at that moment and the team of five began to move as one.

A ballet began.

It‘s a ballet we train for over and over and over again, so that when it matters the most we can successfully complete our tasks. Our patient is beginning to slump in the chair he‘s already barely sitting in when there is a shift in his facial muscles.

It’s then that I know what his wife will soon be told: he is dead. Right then, staring into my eyes, he died. The tell-tale sparkle, the soul — call it what you like — was noticeably gone from his body.

I didn‘t care about the check, the cat or the AC, I was all too focused on a true problem that was suddenly handed to me, one I chose to be ready for. All our preparation, millions of dollars in equipment, training, research and experience couldn‘t stop a bad day from getting worse.

Our interventions didn‘t bring his eyes back to life, or his heart, and last I saw him he was lying on the dining room floor, no longer in pain. We gathered up our equipment, did our best to clean up what we could and away we went back to our own lives, which suddenly didn‘t seem so horrible.

The mood back at the firehouse was somber for a few minutes, but eventually ramped back up to our normal conversations about this problem and that, almost picking up right where we left off.

It is important to those of us who share these uniforms to remember that their bad day is not our bad day. We don‘t make the emergencies. This man‘s death didn‘t add to my grief, it put what I thought was grief before this call into perspective.

I didn‘t call the wife and tell her that my day just got worse because I was the last thing a human ever saw in this life and I was helpless to reverse it. I called her to comfort her because of everything she was going through.

Suddenly I realized that no matter what happened the rest of that day, only one thing could truly make it worse, and that was if I took my experience home and added it to her day — my family‘s day.

The next morning when I come home safe I can deal with everything just fine, keeping to myself the look on that man‘s face for just a few more days until things settle down.

Justin Schorr is a rescue captain for the San Francisco Fire Department, where he has served as a field paramedic and a firefighter, a field captain and an administrative captain. He is ARFF-qualified and oversees EMS response for San Francisco International Airport. Schorr spent 25 years in the fire service and is experienced in rural, suburban and urban firefighting as well as paramedicine. He runs the blog The Happy Medic.

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