“The man on top of the mountain didn’t fall there.”-Vince Lombardi
Every day I remind myself that I do what I love and how that came to be. As medical director of several EMS entities in West Virginia, including a large aeromedical service and a community college paramedic program, most people would consider that I’m at the pinnacle of my career. But I didn’t land on my mountain top intentionally. I reached the summit through grace which evokes within me a sincere sense of gratitude.
I’m on top of my mountain, but each person must decide what their mountain is. My position in EMS allows me the opportunity to give back and to make good on the promises I made to God and to myself to honor those who helped me along the way, particularly the EMS crews that saved my life-twice-and allowed me to become worthy of all the blessings bestowed upon me.
As EMS providers, we often fail to realize our impact on patients and we also fail to realize their impact on us.
We each have our own story. Some stories may seem greater than others. Some stories are more dramatic, yet some go unnoticed.
This is my story, my descent into hell and how EMS saved my life for the third time. It’s a story about grace and gratitude and is intended to convey respect to all who participated in my life’s successes and failures.
It’s a story about duty, honor and acknowledgment. It’s about showing how you can work through stress, despair and hopelessness. How you can carry on when tragedy strikes and enjoy a new and gratifying career. I ask that you follow me through this journey and recognize that what you do every day matters.
When I was seven years old, I dreamt of becoming a police officer like my father, a California Highway Patrol officer. One of the earliest moments when I realized that I wanted to follow in his footsteps occurred one night as I watched my mother cry.
Mom woke my brother, sister and me from sleep one night and gathered us around the television. Four California Highway Patrol officers were gunned down by two suspects they were attempting to apprehend in Newhall, Calif. Our father was on duty in the same area. We watched the news as each officer’s academy graduation photo appeared on the screen and we hoped that none of them would be our father’s.
I would later experience the line of duty death of another of my father’s close friends and partners and see the devastation it caused for a family. I also learned about the culture of public safety and just how special the communities of police, fire, EMS and dispatchers are.
These experiences made me more steadfast in my belief that I wanted to be one of those I admired and respected.
At the age of 21, I was accepted into the police academy. It was a proud moment for both me and my father. I finally had my chance to become a member of the first responder and public safety community.
The police academy training fully immersed me in the police/public service mindset, teaching me that there was much more to the culture and that professionalism, teamwork and doing what was right for the community were more important than any one individual.
Trust, integrity, loyalty and pursuing the common good were at the forefront of everything I was about to do.
A life-changing injury: A nearly severed arm.
First EMS Encounter
I had my first personal encounter with EMS early on a Christmas Eve morning, when I received a radio call regarding multiple suspects at a liquor store. I rapidly proceeded to the corner market, failing to hear the dispatcher’s notification that I had no back up available.
As I arrived on scene, two suspects exited, with one proceeding northbound, away from my patrol car, and the other in the opposite direction. I grabbed the radio and notified dispatch that I was going on a foot pursuit after who I thought was the primary suspect.
I failed to realize that the second suspect had doubled back behind me and was now chasing me. I quickly found myself wrestling for my life, fighting both suspects in a dimly lit carport. During the struggle I sustained stab wounds to the right side of my head which led to significant bleeding from my scalp and head. I considered the use of deadly force, but decided I wasn’t raised to, nor wanted to, kill or injure anyone-regardless of circumstance. It’s a decision I still struggle with today.
Fortunately, EMS arrived and I was saved by people trained to treat my injuries. That initial contact with EMS would forge a sense of respect and appreciation for a profession that would remain with me forever.
After recovering from the injuries, I proceeded forward with my career in law enforcement. I regained confidence within myself and became a weaponless defense and impact weapons instructor.
It was a fantastic time in my life and I felt I was exactly where I should be.
A few years later, I received the great opportunity to attend the California Highway Patrol Motorcycle Enforcement Training Program, the finest, most respected motor officer training program in the world. Completing the program remains the toughest thing I’ve ever done. After graduation, I began another advancement in my career with the police department. I was on top of the world.
Second EMS Encounter
One fall morning while performing my usual traffic enforcement duties, I had my second encounter with EMS. I noticed what I thought was a stolen motorcycle and attempted to pull the motorcyclist over. He failed to yield and a high-speed chase began.
As I pursued him through the streets, a truck loaded with hot paving asphalt was stopped in a two-way turn lane which permitted only left turns.
As I proceeded to the right of the truck, he abruptly made an illegal right-hand turn, cutting off the northbound lanes of travel.
I applied my front brake and grabbed as much of it as I could. I remember the front tire beginning to chatter as I applied maximum pressure. The distance closed dramatically, and I simply ran out of room.
I had only two choices: I could either take the impact at the trailer tongue, or choose another path. I released the front brake and struck the rear drive wheels. I felt that with this choice, at least I wouldn’t be cut in half and I’d have a chance to survive. I thought to myself, “It’s not so bad. It’s not so bad.”
I can remember the moment of impact and striking the rear drive wheels of the truck. I flew forward over the front of my motorcycle. The front of my head struck the tub of the trailer and flipped me over backwards.
My next memory was looking upward, smelling hot asphalt and feeling the radiant heat coming from the trailer. I couldn’t move or control my body. I heard the sound of brakes releasing and the truck above me began to surge forward. Again, things turned to black.
When I regained consciousness and looked up again I could see daylight. The cool air and the haze of the lifting fog surrounded me.
I felt my right hand gripping my sidearm in its holster for some unknown reason. Then the intense pain began.
I noticed steam coming from the right side of my chest. I looked down toward my right hip. Despite the continued sensation of my right hand gripping the weapon, I saw nothing. My right hand wasn’t there.
I turned my head and saw my right hand and arm rolled into a ball next to my helmet. Both were mangled and nearly torn from my body.
Then I saw the blood and the bones of my right hand and pulled my body armor away from my chest only to have the remaining stump of my right shoulder and artery eject blood into my face and mouth. The pain was unbearable. It was a situation I was completely unprepared for.
I managed to locate the radio on my left hip and removed it from the carrier. I called for fire and ambulance, set the radio down and instinctively shoved my left hand deep into the stump of my right shoulder, into what I thought was my open chest.
I recalled what I’d been trained to do in emergency care classes at the police academy: “Hold pressure!”
I made the decision that my life would end there on the pavement, alone, dismembered and bleeding to death. I began to hold my breath in an attempt to lose consciousness.
A fellow officer arrived. He began to talk to me, offering words of support and telling me repeatedly that he wouldn’t let me die alone. Shortly thereafter, a paramedic rig arrived and took control of the situation.
I can’t recall what I said or what they said to me, but I do know that they were with me. Realizing I was at death’s door, the paramedics and firefighters of the Santa Rosa Fire Department cared for me with great speed and skill.
My lifelong respect and appreciation for EMS grew in that moment. They got me to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital’s trauma center within minutes, where the staff worked heroically and managed to save my life and my arm.
I woke in a dimly lit room to someone stroking the left side of my forehead. It was my father, my hero. I remember telling him, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” I remember thinking I had embarrassed him and everyone who had trained and worked with me because I was unable to stop and I hit that truck. The embarrassment and shame I felt was much worse than the physical pain I was in.
It’s amazing what the human mind is capable of. It can protect us, but it can also render us helpless. While in the hospital, I had months of operations and rehab and lots of time to think, wonder and deal with God. I began the negotiation and made promises that I would easily forget.
A terrifying day: My hospital discharge.
After the Physical Pain
As I began to recover physically, I was overtaken by post-traumatic stress. I felt lost.
I had no identity and I felt there was no place to go. I made promises and deals with God, negotiating constantly and, like a child who can’t swim, I was looking for an edge of the pool to cling to.
What I didn’t know was that the EMS crew that helped me were at the hospital offering support to my family almost daily. They donated blood for me. How do you ever thank people for such a generous gift? That answer would eventually come to me, but not until much later.
The day I was discharged to go home was perhaps the most frightening day of my life. I was alone with no identity or direction, unable to return to my career in law enforcement. I was nobody, and the months of rehab, surgery, depression and medications weren’t making anything better.
My downward spiral accelerated rapidly. I completely lost who I was. Attempts to regain my life ended in failure. I was trapped in my own mind, unable to honor those who gave so much to me. I became bitter and resentful.
I remember being asked once, “Do you believe in God?” At the time, my answer was “no.” What kind and merciful God would allow this to happen?
The anger soon progressed to self-pity and then to outright rage. I didn’t care anymore. I stopped seeking help, and I became reclusive, fearing the reality of what I was going through and believing no one could ever understand.
I never considered that I may have been experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I was told it was a major depression, and that the symptoms would resolve in time.
I remember having horrific dreams where I’d see myself collide with the truck, only to step off the sidewalk and pick up my severed right arm.
As time went on, the nightmares were replaced with euphoric dreams of being back at work amongst my friends again. However, when I awoke, my nightmarish reality would return and I would once again discover that I was alone.
I could cite statistics about PTSD all day long, but when you’re the one suffering, they don’t matter-the statistics are 100%.
I finally figured it out one day after a close friend told me I was crazy. After his remarks, I returned home and sat in a chair the rest of the day with a loaded 9 mm in my lap. I thought my only recourse was suicide. I was so wrong.
Instead of following through, I reluctantly decided to attend a vocational rehabilitation appointment that the state of California had arranged for me. I took a series of aptitude and intelligence tests and scored high enough to be provided the opportunity to attend college with financial assistance from the state.
I had never even considered college. I couldn’t see myself attending classes alongside students who were much younger and brighter than me.
The vocational counselor told me something that I wasn’t aware of: Most police, fire and EMS personnel have extremely high intelligence levels and it would be the social aspects of college, not the curriculum, that would be my major challenge.
Upward: Medical school graduation.
Hope at Last
Finally, I had hope, or, at least, something to look forward to. College was a challenge for me both academically and socially. I was treated differently because of my age as well as my past vocation.
I was often confronted by students and staff resentful of a traffic citation or some incident involving police. There were comments in the classroom about anyone in a position of trust or authority.
It became a game. I had to pretend to be everything I wasn’t and just survive. Somehow, I came to believe that what I was experiencing was justified and I deserved everything that was said to me and the challenges these remarks created. I learned to leverage the pain of my past as motivation.
I completed my undergraduate and my master’s degrees. I began to think that the only way I could become the equivalent of a police motorcycle officer was to find its equal. Growing up in a law enforcement family, the only thing equal would have to be something unique and respected. So, I decided to apply to medical school.
I was accepted into the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine. Medical school was a long, challenging journey, but I succeeded and became a physician.
It was during that time when I discovered what had propelled me forward for so long: I was subconsciously becoming the best ex-cop I could be. In other words, I wasn’t running toward anything, I was running away.
My need for success left a lot of damage in its path. I hurt a lot of people. Regardless of my title, I never could accept who I had become. I often told my friends that being called “doctor” was great for about three weeks. It was what I did, but not who I was. Underneath, I was still a public safety professional, and I wanted so badly to find my way back.
The Final Turning Point
Undiagnosed and untreated, the PTSD I was experiencing surfaced several years after I became a husband and father. I felt I was experiencing blessings that were far beyond those I deserved. I was a physician, yet I remained alone and isolated.
At the same time, I became so consumed with discovering my new identity that I lost sight of my family and my marriage was in trouble. My wife insisted that I seek help and I reluctantly agreed.
While sitting in the psychologist’s office on my first visit, he asked me why I continued to spit on his floor. I was startled and realized I had nothing in my mouth except for the taste of blood. It hit me. I was spitting to get rid of blood-the blood that was ejected into my mouth the day I sustained those horrible injuries.
I began to talk more about my symptoms. After being diagnosed with PTSD, I was finally able to begin the recommended treatment. I had the support and understanding of my family doctor who had also served as a colonel in the U.S. Army reserve. It helped me tremendously and made me realize that acceptance was the major hurdle that I needed to confront and overcome.
So here I was, professionally back on top of the mountain but still facing the continued fear of losing everything once again. With help, my symptoms had become manageable and my life was improving. I felt safer and more protected. I felt like I finally belonged again, and that I now had a chance to keep and honor those promises I made in my deepest, darkest moments.
Looking Back, Moving Forward
Early this year I received a phone call from JEMS Editor-in-Chief A.J. Heightman. He’d heard my story from my colleagues at the National Registry, and asked me to present the keynote address at the EMS Today Conference being held in Salt Lake City. It took some encouragement, but I agreed to do it. I thought it would be good way to thank my EMS colleagues.
During our conversation, A.J. asked if I would be willing to include photos of my injuries and exhibit how the surgeons used a few of my ribs to restore my hand to a functional level and allow me to become a successful EMS physician. He added that telling my complete story might offer me the opportunity to further heal. I told him I would consider it.
I had never looked at the hospital photos taken of the injuries I sustained that day. I was terrified that I may see something that I couldn’t mentally handle. I struggled with the decision, and it wasn’t until one week prior to my presentation at EMS Today that I finally looked at them. I accepted that my experience would still remain whether I saw the photos or not.
Shortly before I stepped on stage in Salt Lake City, I discovered something I had been searching for: the reason why my story was important to tell. It came down to three simple words: “Am I worthy?”
Am I worthy of all the blessings and acts of kindness I’ve received in my life? Did I honor all of those who gave so much? I decided to simply thank and acknowledge everyone in attendance, and that’s exactly what I did.
The presentation at EMS Today became the best 50 minutes of my life. Everything I’d feared for all of those years was out in the open. Nobody hated me for my accident and my departure from law enforcement. I didn’t have to be ashamed or embarrassed about the truth of my life.
It helped me tremendously and for that I’m truly grateful to A.J., JEMS publisher MaryBeth DeWitt, the PennWell staff and, most of all, those of who were in attendance when I spoke on the afternoon of Feb. 23, 2017, in Salt Lake City.
I returned from the conference and found that my wife and daughters had seen my presentation on JEMS.com. My oldest daughter told me she learned more about me during that presentation than she’d ever known.
It’s extremely difficult for those of us who save others to save ourselves. We never ask for or accept help and if we do, we wonder what will be said if we admit fear or pain.
If you want to experience faith, grace-even God-ask for help from those you trust most and offer it to those closest to you. You’ll find a path toward grace, but you must also be willing to face the pain and potential embarrassment that may come with it. It’s your story and your experience. As painful as it may be, sincere people will understand and accept you for who you are.
I’m thankful every day for this gift of healing as well as the grace of those around me and the opportunity to climb to the top of my mountain.