To all the people I could not save,
Eleven years into my career as a firefighter, I attended a wedding. Everything was fine at first. When the party got underway, they had a group playing drums, lots of strobe lights, regular lights and lots of yelling and screaming.
Even though it was a celebration, to me, it resembled a call.
Suddenly, I got really tense, chewing my cheek, while I felt my feet and toes scrunching in my shoes.
I started rubbing my thumb and getting jittery and anxious.
I’m sitting there thinking, “What the hell is going on?”
I went to my truck where I cried for a solid hour – the hardest I’ve ever cried in my life.
Simultaneously, I sprouted out phrases and words to my wife: “I should have done more. Why couldn’t I have been better?”
I couldn’t figure out what was going on…
When I decided to become a firefighter at 21 years old, I thought I would be a hero and save people like in the movies. Two of my uncles were firefighters along with my grandfather. It was in my blood. But I had no idea what was ahead. I had no idea how crossing paths with all of you would affect me.
Distinctly, I remember meeting one of you a year or two into my career. You went into cardiac arrest and I tried to do CPR to save you but I didn’t save you. I couldn’t save you. In the days and weeks after, I kept seeing your face over and over in my dreams and in my thoughts. I felt inadequate and helpless, as I wish I could have done more.
Throughout my career, I saved two people from cardiac arrest and many of you are among the others that did not make it. I believe there are between 200 and 250 of you, people that I could not save. For most of you, I don’t know your name and I don’t know your story. That’s partly what makes it so hard. I can’t remember the “good times” in your life because I don’t know them. Instead, I am simply left with the memory of that final look on your face before you passed.
It all came to a head last October when I answered back-to-back calls. The first was a car crash involving a father and daughter, who I believe both survived. The second call involved an elderly man who, to spare you the graphic details, basically drowned in his blood.
On the first call, I remember holding the little girl. It was almost as if I was hugging her because she was so afraid. Truthfully, though, there was a part of me that was trying to comfort myself while holding her. On the second call, there was nothing we could do but I also couldn’t move.
I froze, as I thought to myself, “I need to get out of here.”
As soon as I could leave, I started uncontrollably crying.
I texted my wife and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I want to go home. I can’t do it.”
After that shift, I never returned to work. First, I took a leave of absence for two months but it wasn’t enough. Ultimately, I parted ways with the fire department.
I realize now losing all of you led me to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as PTSD. I went from a very social, friendly and outgoing person to a guy who was deteriorating. I became very standoffish, irritable and short-fused, as I started to rely on alcohol to numb my emotions and help me sleep. After a while, I’d look in the mirror and I could hardly recognize myself.
To this day, dreams and flashbacks with all of you are frequent and repetitive. It’s like watching a movie on a five-minute loop.
Sometimes I wonder if the reason I keep seeing all of you is because there is so much I never got to say to any of you.
I want you all to know I did what I could to save you.
I want you all to know that even though I don’t know your names or your stories, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of all of you and your families.
I want you to know that I may no longer be a firefighter, but I am still fighting in honor of all of you. Your loss of life is inspiring me to extend or improve the lives of others.
After I left the fire department, I got a job as a baseball coach at Buckeye Medina High School in Ohio. I grew up playing baseball. It’s always been an outlet for me. All the lessons I learned as a firefighter I try to pass down to the kids. For example, when I entered a burning building I needed to know the guy that I went in with was going to have my back as much as I had his back. When I coach, I try to convey the importance of creating a brotherhood and a family that’s respectful, compassionate and understanding of each other.
On an individual level, a lot of these kids feel alone. I was one of those people who felt alone. So, I want them to know that it’s OK to not be OK and that everybody has their struggles.
It’s the loss of your lives that is motivating me to find the strength to make a difference in the lives of people who are still here. That is why I am now in school, earning a degree in teaching.
As a firefighter, military personnel, police officer or any other professional who protects people and communities there is an expectation to be strong, brave and invincible. If you show too much emotion you can be ridiculed or crucified for it. It shouldn’t be that way because that’s what makes people ultimately become more symptomatic, more vulnerable, weaker and more alone.
I am so lucky and thankful to my wife, Tara, who is a psychologist, for being by my side and helping me find my voice.
She taught me the importance of self-care and educated me about mental health. As a result, I am now on a path towards healing, helping others and acknowledging the profound impact the loss of your lives has had on me.
I have learned the hard way that life will always throw you curveballs. How you take a pitch ultimately depends on if you get to first, second, third or home.
While losing all of you felt like I was continuously striking out in life, now, through these kids, I feel like I am finally scoring runs for them, for me and for you.
And while I so wish I could have been your hero, I have also learned that it is OK to be human.
While you are in my past, you inspire my future. I will never forget any of you.