Firefighter career: Never forget how it felt to be part of something bigger than yourself

In retirement I am able to look back at the career as a whole and past the ghosts of patients who I was unable to rescue

When I wrote the article "Why 20 years of firefighting may be enough for me" I was closing in on 20 years on the job. Giving up my career as a firefighter was a lot harder than I thought; I made it to 23 years.

There’s something indescribable about being a first responder, or so many of us wouldn’t do it long after we know we should have stopped. I think that maybe why we wait for the perfect day, the perfect call, and the perfect moment before letting it go. But if I have learned one thing; the most perfect moment of all is the one that is happening right now.

We, of all people, know that we cannot plan on anything. Waiting for the perfect moment to call it quits is nuts. The last three years of my career were spent in a self-imposed limbo. Things happened that should have been the catalyst to my giving it up for good. I just didn’t realize it until long after the moments were gone.

There’s something indescribable about being a first responder, or so many of us wouldn’t do it long after we know we should have stopped. (Photo/Bureau of Labor Statistics)
There’s something indescribable about being a first responder, or so many of us wouldn’t do it long after we know we should have stopped. (Photo/Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Remarkable moments in a firefighting career

I have some great memories of some truly remarkable moments that happened during the twenty-three years I spent as a firefighter, Lieutenant and Captain with the Providence Fire Department. Funny thing is I never knew how great those moments were while they were happening. Lost in the heat of the battle was the fact that the things that were happening would stay with me for the rest of my life. Here are just four of many moments that have stuck with me into retirement.

I found a letter on my desk at Rescue 1’s quarters, 0300, near the end of an endless shift. It was a note from the family of a college-aged girl I treated and transported to an emergency room weeks before. The girl had contracted bacterial meningitis and was critical, her family stood watch over her as the night progressed, and I offered what little comfort I could by checking on them every time I brought another patient in – six times after midnight. The girl suffered dozens of seizures, her outlook was grim. Inside the note was an invitation to her graduation. She made a full recovery and was ready to begin her career as a teacher in a nearby town. I attended her graduation, stood in the back like a proud parent, but had to leave when a call came in.

We responded to a shooting in the inner city, high noon. I approached the scene cautiously, when a 10-year-old kid comes out of nowhere and gives me a giant hug. It’s Carlos, a kid from a school where I volunteered. I was supposed to read Dr. Seuss books to an ESL class, but made up stories instead. Considering I was not invited back, I thought the experience a failure. Carlos thought otherwise, I hadn’t seen him in four years, but remembered him instantly. He told me he was doing great in school, had learned to speak English and was going to be a Providence Firefighter. He translated for the shooting victim, a 16-year-old who had yet to learn English and did not appear to want to be anything, but what he was. He survived. Carlos promised me he would too.

And horrible things have stayed with me as well.

A different college student fell from the roof of his dorm, eighty feet onto pavement. He survived for a little while, was able to make eye contact even though his eyes had been popped from their sockets and rested on his broken nose and cheeks. He made it to surgery and his parents got to say goodbye.

Three little kids sitting on a couch at 0200, their dead mother in the kitchen, a bullet hole in the center of her forehead. They watch, hypnotized as I carry their catatonic father past them, his gun still on the kitchen floor as detectives converge and child services take them away.

Good times push away the bad times

As time progresses the good times push the bad times further out of my mind. I look forward to the days when the horrific memories are gone forever and just the good ones survive.

Things do get better after retirement. The ghosts I spoke of on the cusp of retirement have receded to a place where they seldom see the light of day.

I remember my 23-year experience more as a whole now, rather than shattered fragments of misery with a few bright spots. The memory of my experience is good.

I don’t think about “the job” much anymore, I’m more focused on “the me.” What I did, and witnessed does not define me as a person. It never did.

I got a little lost in the middle of it all and believed that I had become the personification of the job that I was doing. Big mistake; I was just another tool in the toolbox in the big scheme of things, helping to do a job that needed to be done.

It’s kind of funny how in recollection the painful moments come to the surface as individual events, each one a separate incident with vivid detail. It takes but a second to conjure those images up, when I put my mind to it. So I choose not to.

Instead, I think of all of the good times in the station, the connection with the patients when I was working the EMS side of the fire service, and the mutual respect shared with the people I spent over two decades with. Though I am no longer a physical part of that world, a giant piece of me will always belong there.

When I allow myself the indulgence of reflection now, I see my career as a whole, and rather than dredging up ghosts from the past, I am able to simply remember how good it felt to be part of something bigger than myself, something that’s ultimate purpose was good, and to know that wherever this life leads me, I will always be part of it.

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