The Night My Life Changed Forever

-By Brian Halley

The day my First Responder career began was in April of 1998, in a rural Oklahoma, private-county ambulance service.  I had completed an Emergency Medical Technician-Basic (EMT-B) school and was waiting to take the National Registry exam.  In the meantime, I could drive an ambulance as a first responder. Up to this point in my life, I had very little exposure to the horrors I would face for the next 21 years.  In EMT school we saw videos, did a couple of ambulance rides and two 12-hour rotations in a level 4 ER. We were only told about Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD), but never received any type of formal training on it. If we ran a bad call, we talked about it in the first 24 hours with the crew, but I’ll be damned if we show any hint of weakness or emotion.  If so, the thought was we aren’t cut out for this line of work and need to move on. Since that first day, I have learned the hard way about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety and how 21 years of exposure to things no human should be exposed to takes its toll on the human mind.   I do not come from a family with a background in EMS, firefighting or even healthcare.  All but 2 of the males in my family were in the military, me being one of the two.  I couldn’t fathom what I was going to be exposed to, nor how to cope. I do believe with all my heart this career is my calling.  I did not pick this career; it picked me. The following story is the day I thought my career was over, and how my life as I knew changed forever. 

Fast forward to November 2014.  I’m a very well-seasoned paramedic, now working with one of my good friends and one of the best paramedics.   We were assigned to the medic this shift.  This assignment was OK with us because we really wanted to get out of the station and make our rounds.  This is where we felt we could make a difference and we also stayed busy.  Plus, we had great conversations and solved all the worlds problems in front of that box.  The guys that I was stationed with at this time were like brothers.  We had the best crew in the city, and we knew it. We all had our strengths and knew the other’s weaknesses. At any point, I could call any of these guys, and they would be there to help me without question. Our Battalion Chief was an amazing man.  He truly loved us and would do everything in his power to help us obtain our goals in our careers and life.  In 2014, we knew very little about mental health and how it affected first responders.  Sure, we had bad calls, but none of us showed any signs we were bothered by them, or that we had problems. After every bad call, we would sit around the kitchen table and do our quasi CISD. Late one night after a call, my world came to a sudden halt, and I found my brothers were truly more than family...they were my saving grace.

That night we got a call for a sick child.  The notes were typical call notes for a sick patient:  no medical history and the family wants the child checked.  We were only about 2 miles from the call, so it was a quick response. I was the driver of the medic, and my partner took the lead.  When we turned down the dark street, we couldn’t really see any house numbers, and as we pulled up to the home, a man jumped in front of the medic.  I nearly hit him.  He was hysterical and yelling for us to help his child.  At that same time, dispatch advised they were giving PAI to the family for CPR.  I’m pretty sure my partner and I said a lot of choice words at that moment. I’m not sure why, but I jumped out of the medic and yelled to my partner to get the back set up, and I would be right back with the child.  When I made it to the child, they were in cardiac arrest.  At this point in my career, I can not tell you how many pediatric arrests I have had, but I would imagine it’s a number close to 40 or 50.  I have always said to my past students, precepts, and rookies that pediatric arrest are the easiest arrest physically, but the most difficult mentally. I have never had any issues with running pediatric calls.  The family stated that right before we pulled up the child stopped breathing and turned blue.  They said the child had been sick.  As I arrived at the medic holding this innocent child, that was now lifeless, I saw my team, suited up and ready to take care of business.  I assumed the position as the lead medic and started giving tasks to the guys.  We were working seamlessly as we always did on bad calls. Remember I said we all had our strengths earlier?  One of mine is running pediatric arrest and intubations.  The weird thing was on this call, I couldn’t get any airway on the child.  I began to get frustrated.  I don’t miss tubes, and I especially don’t miss tubes on pediatrics, but I couldn’t get this one completed.   I let another guy try.  He couldn’t get it either.  Now, I was really frustrated. I remember saying “F-it, just get us to the hospital now, and we will figure something out on the way.”   We never got an advanced airway on the child.  We were able to get the airway with basic support; however, the child was pronounced dead at the ER.  We did all we could. The mother and father were inconsolable.  Rightfully so, as I can not imagine their pain. We all stood in the ER,  slightly defeated, but we knew we did the best we could.  We knew the fate of that child was determined long before any of us were born.  The entire crew talked out by the box while we were cleaning up and we all thought we handled the situation.  As I was cleaning the whiteboard, I saw a birthday written on the board.  No one knew who wrote the birthday, but they did know it was the deceased child’s.  My mental strength vanished at that moment because the birthday of this dead baby was only 5 days different from my youngest daughters’ birthday.  I can’t describe to you what kind of feelings arose in my throat.  My breathing started getting faster, and I started to feel a little funny.  I had to walk inside the ER and let them know I had a birth date so I could start writing my report.  I looked into the room, and I saw something most people would think is gross or weird, and even to me, it scared the shit out of me and immediately turned me into a sobbing baby.  I barely made it out of the ER without making a scene in front of my peers.  Before I looked into that room, I never knew that child was a female, nor did I think of it being important while performing CPR because their gender is irrelevant.  But there she was:  a female baby, 5 days younger than my youngest daughter, perfectly healthy earlier, now dead. 

Once I got outside, I collapsed.  I couldn’t speak, see, hear or feel anything.  The guys grabbed me and asked me what was wrong.  Why are you crying? What happened? Is your family OK? What is going on and what do we do?  I’m not sure what answers they came up with as reasoning for my behavior, but I can imagine they were scared, as I would have been if it were one of them.  I tried to tell them I did not know what was wrong with me, but I couldn’t speak without busting out crying:  the type of crying you got when your dad busted your ass with the belt, and you sucked in your bottom lip and snot came out of your nose crying.  They got me into the medic, and I rode silently in the back, not able to speak or comprehend what was happening.  My partner did something most guys I know wouldn’t have done:  he placed us out of service, not on the radio, but called dispatch directly and told them we were out of service, so no one else would know.  He called the guys at the station and told them something bad was happening to me, and we needed help.  Our battalion chief and chaplain both showed up at the station.  Do you know what the worst thing about this was? I felt guilty I was acting like this.  During the entire time of this call, we had a new kid at the station, who had never seen anything like this call, and now he had to see a 15-year well-seasoned paramedic falling apart mentally and physically.  I feel guilty saying this, but it should have been him scared and crying, not me.   I’ve seen more evil things than most people in my career, and I’m usually like a steel wall,  nothing gets to me.  I don’t show emotion.  I’ve been hardened and am cold-hearted.  Ask my wife, she will tell you! When we pulled up to the station, I had no idea what was waiting for me, nor the impact these guys, my brothers, were going to have on me the rest of my life.

Have you seen the reality shows where people do interventions for addicts?  That scenario was what I saw as I walked into the station.  Everyone was there to help and offer support:  my brothers, my Chief, and my Chaplain.  They were all standing on the front apron wanting to hug me, console me, help me.  I wanted none of it.  I kept telling myself to quit being stupid and grow a pair and get over this crap.  The problem was, I couldn’t speak.  Every time I tried to speak, I busted out crying and went to my knees.  Then another thought hit me like a boulder:  my career is over. This is the way I am going out.  How would I explain this to my wife…”Sorry babe, your husband had a bad call, showed weakness and lost his job”.  What would my life amount too?  It didn’t play out like that at all.  The guys all supported me, talked to me, and even some of them cried with me.  And for this support, I am thankful. My Chief told me he was sending me home to recover and to take whatever time I needed to get better.  The Chaplain  prayed with us, counseled us as a group and helped me understand some of my feelings.  I respectfully told the Chief I was not going home,  and I had to stay with my family here, as this was my therapy.  My wife, also in the medical field, would understand, but I knew my 2 daughters would not understand.   Plus, I didn’t want to see my youngest at that moment because I thought it would make me worse. We stayed up several more hours and talked as a group about the call, past calls, and our personal lives.  I didn’t sleep that night, and we didn’t get another call either. My partner to this day still won’t tell me, but I am positive he kept us out of service the rest of the shift.  The one thing I do know is by standing on that apron and talking this breakdown out, with no judgment, and sharing our raw emotions, impacted me more than anything else.  These guys are my friends and my family, and that night they showed what true brotherhood is.

When I got home that morning, my wife had the girls up and ready for school.  I took the oldest to school and kissed and held my little one for a long time.  Jennifer knew something had happened during a bad call.  She wanted to know the details.  I sat in our closet, on the floor and cried my eyes out for 2 hours.  She was awesome.  She said nothing, and for my wife, that’s like telling a child they can touch the cake, but not lick their finger!  I am not sure of everything I said, but what I do know is she is my rock and sounding board, and when I was done and had no more fluid left to cry, she hugged me and told me we would get through this and it would all be okay.  She was there for me, and so was my family.  Once I stood up, I felt so much better, like a weight was lifted off my shoulders.  I could then think about that call and not get upset.  Man, it felt good, and I slept like a baby for the rest of the day.

When I began to dive into this episode, and try and find the cause, it wasn’t just that call that caused the breakdown; it was a culmination of the last 16 years of bad calls.  Faces of all the patients that had died, either from being killed in car wrecks, suicides, murders, infants from SIDS and even natural causes began to show.  I did not fear them though.  They are part of me, and I am part of them.  We all say we have demons.  I do not hate my demons; I embrace them and learn from them. But I think the popping point that night was a culmination of the past 3 or 4 days in that time frame.  Jennifer’s grandmother, who she loved so much, who we all loved, passed away 3 days prior and we had just seen her one last time with our baby girls.  It hurt me to see my wife so sad.  Then, about 4 hours after learning of grandmas death, our crew ran on a wreck that involved a young man who hit a tree going over 90mph.  He was ejected while wearing his seatbelt, yet he had no major injuries and survived.  I remember telling him that the hand of God plucked him from that vehicle and gave him another shot at life.  The car was unrecognizable, and his front axle was sitting in the driver seat, with him nicely laid out next to the car. The very next shift we ran the pediatric arrest, where an innocent baby died. All I could think of was, “why take the baby”? “Why not the guy who made a bad decision”?  I know fate is not mine to question.  I know God has greater plans for those he calls home, and there are lessons to be learned from those we think are taken to soon.  We may not know what those lessons are now, but we will someday.

I tell this story all the time.  I enjoy telling people about what happened to me.  I make sure and tell all the new rookies so they know it is okay to have emotions.  They will have bad calls that will scare them, but it will be okay.  There is help for first responders, and there is no shame in asking for this help.  When I began this career, there was a stigma about mental health.  There is still a stigma, but now we are slowly breaking that wall and putting our issues out in front of everyone, so others don’t have to go through what we went through.  I truly believe, had I not had my brothers that night, I would not be telling this story.  Here I am, 21 years as a first responder and still doing what I love.  I would be lying if I told you I don’t have mental stress, depression or anxiety.  We all have mental stress or at some point, we all will.  Asking for help is not a weakness; it’s a form of courage. 

I am glad this event happened to me because, without it, I would not be where I am today.  Jennifer also had a terrible event, and I am glad it happened to her.  However, when her and my events happened, the processes we both had to go through to get to where we are now sucked tremendously, but we would not be doing what we are doing without our traumatic events.  Mental health awareness and first responder support is her calling, which has become part of my calling, and I love that we can do it together, with our own personal stories, events, struggles and ultimate successes to share.  We both came out of the darkness, and so can you.