I’m writing this editor’s page at 3 in the morning on Super Bowl Sunday, because I couldn’t sleep, have been putting off writing it for weeks and it’s due on Monday. The staff has been reminding me about it, but I’ve been dragging my feet, not sleeping well and working at weird hours on a multitude of other projects that have allowed me to temporarily forget this emotional task.
I’ve known what I was going to write since this past April when I first talked to Phoenix Fire Dept. Capt. Dean Pedrotti about the article he wanted to write for JEMS detailing the challenges EMS personnel face when treating former military personnel who are experiencing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). His article points out that we will respond to countless domestic disputes and bar fights that occur when PTSD or traumatic brain injury causes a veteran to overreact. We’ll also be working with colleagues who were called to serve in these conflicts and then returned to work in EMS, law enforcement and the fire service—where they will be subjected to incidents that will remind them of the horrible things they’ve seen and are trying to suppress in the deepest chambers of their mind.
I knew it was going to be an epic article, one that had to be written and published in JEMS, because the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are taking a horrible toll on our troops, returning them to civilian life with terrible emotional scars that will be seen by EMS responders for decades to come. I also knew the article would churn up personal memories—emotions I fight to suppress.
Today’s veterans are seeing soldiers, civilians and children blown up or horribly mutilated. Many have been injured themselves. These memories do not fade away. Your mind is like a sophisticated camera with unlimited memory. It captures and holds sights and sounds forever, filing them away for retrieval at any moment. But unlike the storage of photos that you can choose to retrieve and show friends and loved ones at your discretion, PTSD retrieves awful memories when you least expect it. This happens when your mind is subjected to upsetting or traumatic events that remind you of previous stressful experiences.
This phenomenon is referred to by clinicians as “intrusive recollection.” I’ve referred to it as “residual stress” in my MCI workshops for years because I’ve studied it, witnessed it and, yes lived it. I’ve experienced the effects of PTSD and fought its demons for decades.
Over a 30-year street career, I’ve seen and managed many horrible calls that I’ve been able to easily reconcile, suppress and live with. But one incident in particular remains raw in my mind and surfaces more often than I would like it to.
It was a mid-air collision of two aircraft over an air show in Allentown, Pa., on Nov. 25, 1983. There were no survivors. As we removed the bodies from the wreckage, I lifted a deceased woman and found that she was clutching the lifeless body of her small baby in her arms. This was the first vivid memory imprinted in my mind that awful day.
I later had to sort and place the body parts of several other small children into separate body bags so they could be accounted for and returned to their parents. That added more awful imprints to my memory bank. It was one of the most emotionally challenging tasks of my career. I thought I could suppress those memories. But several incidents that happened nearly a decade later showed me that I could not.
First, on July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 crashed while on its way to Chicago from Denver. Capt. Al Haynes was at the controls that fateful day and did a superb job of attempting to land the crippled DC-10 at Sioux City airport. The aircraft broke up, killing 110 of its 285 passengers and one crew member.
Graphic footage I reviewed for a national video education firm in 1990 caused me to relive my own traumatic plane crash experience.
Then, in 1992, a made-for-TV movie, Crash Landing: The Rescue of Flight 232, detailed the crash and the outstanding work of the rescuers. Near the end of the movie, a scene in a hangar depicting rescuers matching up the small sneakers and body parts of small children caused me to began to cry and shake like a baby.
No one is immune to PTSD and intrusive recollection. Please read Dean Pedrotti’s article carefully and be prepared to handle the fragile emotions of veterans, co-workers and, perhaps, yourself in the future. JEMS