A Deeper Purpose

I’ve been incredibly blessed in my life and EMS career. I’ve never had to look very far to find inspiration. I’m not saying it’s always been easy, but it comes nonetheless. Just about the time I resolve to bag it all and go work in a flower shop, I’m moved to continue.

Having been in EMS for … well, let’s just say a long time, I still find inspiration in surprising situations. Sure, I’ve had patients that taught and stirred me, like the guy early in my career who told me flat out he was going to arrest and despite my quip, “Ah, not on my shift pal;” he promptly did. Or the pregnant mom who watched her nurse die as the ambulance they were riding in crashed. She held my hand and made me promise that it wouldn’t be in vain. I carry the picture of her son, now four years old, with me everywhere. And then there’s Lisa; you know the one–that quintessential patient you’ll never forget. Lisa was a 15-year-old girl whose mother begged me to save her daughter on scene. Lisa arrested several times en route and had a rocky hospital course. A few years ago now, I attended her wedding–some 12 years after we transported her.

Yes, inspiration has come in many ways, like the support we received after our helicopter crashed 13 years ago, and I lost a dear friend. I’ve become pretty passionate about honoring our fallen, and more importantly, about finding purpose in their sacrifices. Perhaps it’s my way of paying it forward. However, it’s been awhile since I’ve been as inspired as I recently was attending the National EMS Memorial Service. It was a long weekend of little sleep, yet it reminded me of all the opportunities we have to turn pain from loss into good. Inspiration was everywhere.

My team, AIRLIFE Denver, is an amazing one. OK, I recognize I may have some bias there, but go with me for a bit. They were amazing. I simply asked them to help or attend if they wanted to. Sixteen of them rode in the one-day, 85-mile Colorado leg of the National EMS Memorial Bike Ride (NEMSMBR) to begin the weekend. Another 10 provided support for the riders, handing out water and food at each stop and yelling encouragement to keep them all going. Another 10 attended the service in uniform, and six stayed to help at the family breakfast Sunday morning. One even wrote a poem–all while fully covering the service the entire weekend. They all made me proud beyond words.

There were so many others who helped; it would be difficult to list them all. Suffice it to say I saw 78 brave souls hop on bikes for 85 miles and countless others ride alongside them for support. I saw volunteers who travelled from across the country at their own expense to help unpack boxes and set up displays, like the couple who lost their daughter in an air medical accident five years ago who came back to volunteer their vacation time “because others were there for them” when they were on the other side. There were EMS agencies that came from across the state with vehicles for the parade. I also saw friends and family come out of the woodwork to offer support. Honor guard members and pipers traveled from across the country to participate. They began practicing Friday evening and continued playing all day Saturday through the service to ensure a flawless performance. JEMS Editor-in-Chief A.J. Heightman gave a heartrending, and at times gut-wrenching, yet poignant speech at the service. Other flight programs came together to provide a spectacular flyover and put in hours to set it all up safely. There were so many moments and so many stories; I took it all in and vowed to remain stoic.

But the crown jewel for me was a 9-year-old boy I met in the elevator who would eventually move me to tears and steal my heart. I didn’t know when I first bumped into him Friday afternoon that his dad died when the helicopter he was riding in crashed this past year. Looking back at it now, he seemed to be rehearsing his steps as he got on the elevator. He had a family nametag on, so I greeted him with a quick smile and asked him how he was. “I’m ready, and I’m going to be brave,” he declared, and I smiled back and said “then let’s go.” Off we went to greet the bike riders, who would soon be parading in.

I bumped into the boy several more times before the service, and each time he seemed to be walking through a planned routine. At lunch before the Service, I saw him again in front of me in the buffet line, sheepishly asking the wait staff if there was one more cookie for his sister. When they reported they had just run out, he politely asked if he could instead take her some strawberries instead and split the cookie with her. I remember thinking how sweet that was. And then it came. I was standing on stage at the service handing the medallions to the honor guard for presentation to the families, and Steve Berry announced my new 9-year-old friend’s name as accepting for his father. I finally made the connection. He trodded up the stairs with the same precision he saw in the honor guards’ march, and it dawned on me that that’s what he’d been practicing all weekend. He was astonishingly brave, and I lost it.

At the risk of sounding like Oprah, this I know for sure: Loss is painful. It doesn’t matter if it’s quick or if it comes slowly after an agonizing decision to terminate support, for the ones who lose loved ones and are left to carry on, the pain is just the same. The real challenge is deciding what to do with that pain.

I’ve long said we all leave fingerprints on our world. I’ve been so blessed to see and share so many experiences where ordinary people have chosen to pay it forward and find something meaningful in the pain. For example, Steve Berry honors his lost partner with his passion for the NEMSMBR, and Paul Davenport honors his late mom by championing therapeutic induced hypothermia that likely would have changed her outcome. And, I also think of the Dale Long family, who shared at the breakfast how they have fought tirelessly since losing him last year to create legislation to extend federal line-of-duty death benefits to all EMS personnel, even if they work for nonprofit or volunteer organizations.

It would have been easy for any of them to get lost in their grief. I see some do that. I’m sure I’m different. I’m a root cause analysis fanatic, but I think my team knows it’s because I need them to go home safely every day. They know they’re responsible to keep improving, growing, questioning and evolving. Still, they inspire me like they did that weekend. They would want me to ask, “What have you done to honor those you’ve lost? What are you doing to improve outcomes? Will you leave fingerprints you are proud of or smudges someone will want to erase?”

I’m reminded, and I know that what we do is powerful, even with loss. Fortunately, I don’t have to look hard for inspiration. Should I ever be in need of it, I’m going to think about how hard Steve, Paul, Lisa, the Long family and my team, among others, have worked to find their deeper purpose. And I’m going to forever remember the brave 9-year-old boy who asked to have his picture taken with me because he said he wants to fly helicopters someday to help others. I’ll carry his picture, fingerprints and all, with me now too.


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