There are many topics that are discussed aloud that truly don't need to be. Then there are those that should be. PTSD is one of the latter. I don't talk about it much openly. When you are in a command role in emergency services, you are not supposed to show weakness. The problem with that is this. If I cannot talk about it, how can I expect someone who is really suffering to talk about it?
So how does PTSD affect me today? In truth, I'm doing quite well. It mainly affects me at night in my dreams. It began with what I call "911" dreams. I would need to call for help. I would pick up the handset and try to dial 911 to get help because of a fire, or a medical emergency, or some other calamity. Note I said 'dial'. Yes, this shit has been going on that long - back to the dial phone days. So, as I would try to dial 9-1-1, my finger would slip and I would dial 9-1-2. I'd try again. This time I would dial 9-2-1. I'd try again. The finger stop on the dial would break off. Then I would finally dial 9-1-1 and someone would answer, but the speaker in the mouthpiece would be missing. I could hear the 9-1-1 operator, but he/she could not hear me. I'd wake up sweating profusely, my heart pounding.
Then we got to touch tone phones. Same crap, different night. I just couldn't punch in 9-1-1. Same physiological effects.
This has gone on to this day. I have maybe two or three of these dreams per month, every month for the last three decades.
Now, they have morphed. In recent years, I have radio trouble and cannot make radio contact for help. The best one was a few months ago. There was a five-story building on fire. I needed to dial 9-1-1. It was cold. I couldn't get my gloves off in order to dial my smartphone. So, I tried flagging down passersby. They wouldn't stop. I spotted a fire alarm pull station box. It was mounted about 10 feet up on a pole. I jumped and I jumped and couldn't reach it. Finally, a young woman arrived who was on the fire department. She was doing building inspections. I told her to call for help. She didn't have a radio or a phone. I swear this went on for hours. I was exhausted when I finally woke up.
I never know when these dreams will happen. They have happened on shift. I know I make moaning sounds because my wife wakes me up at home when she hears me. I guess I haven't cried out loud enough at the station.
About a dozen years ago, I entered a writing contest. The goal was to write a memoir in which you had to use the title of your memoir in the first paragraph. Those were the only guidelines. I wrote my memoir - "Subjected." I didn't win any recognition. What I did win was the realization that I could write about an experience that probably started it all. If you want to read that memoir, continue to the next section and kick back for about ten minutes. It doesn't take long to read about what has caused my thirty years of nightmares.
If you've read this far, thank you. Unless you know me personally, you are probably wondering why I bothered to discuss this topic - PTSD - on my author website. I did because the truth is I write to escape the demons in my head. Now, I'm probably using an overly dramatic choice of words. But in all honesty, it is wonderful to escape into a world where I can control (mostly) what the hell is going on. I can control the emotions, the tension, the passion, the action. I can control everything through keystrokes on my laptop. Life, as you know, is not like that.
My productivity in writing has waned in recent years. As I've wondered why, I think part of the reason is I'm getting better. I've also discovered that in reality, not only can I get help to an emergency, I am that help. I choose to share in that person's very bad day and I'm pretty damn good about making their lousy day better. If that means I write fewer words each time I sit down at the laptop, I'm okay with that. I'm calling this a victory.
I’ve lived death vicariously. That’s right—lived death. Mind you, I’m not speaking of my own. Were that the case, you, the reader, would be experiencing some sort of supernatural experience, and this memoir is mine…not yours.
For those of us in the emergency services field who make the supreme commitment to answer a stranger’s call for help, relentless exposure to death and tragedy eventually numbs the body’s natural reaction to the extreme and the repulsive. Experts state that post-traumatic stress disorder can result from a single horrific moment in one’s life experience, or it can come as the result of an accumulation of incessant violations of one’s psyche. It’s sort of like driving a nail. One can accomplish the task with a single slam from a pneumatic nail driver or any number of strikes from a hammer. But what happens if one is subjected to both?
By 1984, my third year as a medic and firefighter, I had seen far more sick, injured and dead people outside of the hospital environment than would a typical person in a lifetime, save those who experience combat. I was naïve enough to think death was an event that should be commemorated in some manner. As such, I could associate busy highway intersections, lovely country roads, pristine homes, crosses on the side of the road, and even privies, with the loss of a life…sometimes more than one. I even kept count of the number of dead as my way of showing respect to that person’s tragedy. Then one day, I realized something terrible—I had forgotten the number. I wondered, “How could I possibly be so insensitive as to forget such a thing?” I learned while in therapy in the late 80s that a lapse such as this is but one way the mind copes with tragic realities when PTSD sets in.
Barton Creek meanders from its headwaters, through the Texas Hill Country of Western Travis County, surfacing from time to time to show the World its beauty, only to retreat to subterranean depths where it is recharged with fresh, cool aquifer water. At the confluence of the creek and the Colorado River at Zilker Park, Colonel Zilker created a pool that has been appropriately anointed one of Austin’s crown jewels. Known for generations as Barton Springs, it represents iconic Austin, Texas. A leisurely visitor or new resident cannot spend more than a few days in that town without visiting Town Lake and the small, serene creek pumping persistently cold—and I mean very cold—spring water into the river. I spent countless hot summer days cooling my heels in the crystal clear water of Barton Springs. As easy as the water was on my flesh, the view was at times easy on my eyes, as the Springs was one of the last public facilities in America to turn a blind eye toward topless sunbathing. Many a nubile, young University of Texas co-ed displayed her wares for all to see. Though considered a pool, the three acres of rock-wall bound Barton Springs runs cold and deep. The casual visitor cannot take these qualities for granted. I once pulled a teenage girl and her young brother from the water as they struggled in the depths of the pool. Perhaps my fondest of memories of the Springs is that this is where I taught my oldest daughter to swim. My gosh—Robert Redford even learned how to swim there! Alas, I’m certain their shared childhood experiences end with that. Such is the bitter irony of the creek—so many soothing memories, masked by one single, dark event yet to unfold upstream from this marvelous haven.
Twenty miles to the southwest of Zilker Park, Barton Creek crosses beneath Highway 71. That road links Austin to the rural, western part of the county, as well as the chain of lakes in the vicinity of Marble Falls that connects with, at the east end, Lake Austin and then Town Lake. Being a recreational area close to a large metropolitan region, the lakes invariably draw crowds from Austin and the surrounding area. Sadly, water recreation in Texas too often brings with it over-exuberance, excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages, and fatigue. Then the revelers must make the long drive home frequently along Highway 71. As with the number of deaths I’d encountered, I had long ago forgotten the number of accidents to which I had responded along that highway—accidents ending a journey for some who, just hours earlier, had been having a wondrous time.
The shrill tone from the red Motorola pager awakened me from a sound sleep in my warm bed as it so often did at night. A vehicle had driven off the Highway 71 bridge that crossed over Barton Creek. It was a weekend and, that being the case, there were only three medics along with one fire crew on call. Our volunteer fire department didn’t have a station per se. Rather, each of the department’s six fire trucks were kept at the private Oak Hill residences of the lieutenants charged with that truck and fire company. The rescue squad rotated between locations. On this particular weekend, the squad was at my house. Within the desired ‘chute time’ of three minutes, I’d slipped into my red jumpsuit, boots, and bunker coat, and was racing in the yellow rig to the scene about seven miles away.
At this point in recent history, mobile telephones were not only the size of bricks, they were owned exclusively by select business people and the relatively few others who could afford them. A passerby witnessed the incident and drove six miles to a pay phone at a grocery store to call for help. I was the first to arrive at the scene of the accident. The other medics and firefighters were following several minutes behind me. Quickly surveying the scene, I discovered a young man, alone and hysterical, standing on the east bank of the creek, just south of the bridge. Soaking wet and extremely distraught, as anyone would be who had just crawled from a vehicle submerged in the water, he shivered vigorously from the cold, and undoubtedly the rush of adrenaline pumping through his veins. With great difficulty, he managed to explain to me that his close friend, the passenger and only other occupant of the vehicle, was missing. The situation was ominous at best.
We are taught as medics to care first for ourselves, then our partner, then the patient. Every seasoned medic faces the barrel of this gun at some point in their career and must make the very personal and gut-wrenching decision to be safe, or to give the victim every possible chance of survival at the risk of one’s own peril. The choices frequently are mutually exclusive. Knowing the spring water remains 68 degrees year round and that the air temperature was much colder than that, I knew hypothermia might work to the advantage of the victim who by now had been under water at least twenty minutes. The decision process took me only seconds, and without waiting for the next-in personnel to arrive, I put the young survivor into the cab of the rescue squad and then waded into the creek.
I was in water up to my neck before reaching the partially submerged, upside-down vehicle. Four wheels and the undercarriage protruded above the surface of the creek as if the vehicle was the carcass of a dead animal—its stiff legs sticking into the air. In my haste, I hadn’t removed my bunker coat or my three-quarter boots before entering the creek. Normally heavy when dry, the coat quickly became many times its locker weight as it rapidly became saturated with water. Each of my high boots—complete with steel plates in their toes and soles—turned into thirty pound buckets. As anyone working in water knows, its resistance against each of your actions naturally slows one’s movements. Now, add to this the encumbrance of my new-found weight, and I found my rapid response reduced to agonizingly slow motion.
Not only did my gear weigh me down, it acted much like a wick. My jumpsuit, the closest garment to my skin, pulled the water against my body and retained it there. I quickly realized the same cold water that might spare my victim death because of hypothermia, now threatened my own life due to hypothermia. I had very little time to safely conduct my rescue, and it had only begun.
Having unwisely not taken the time to start the rescue truck’s generator in order to power the halogen light towers, I found myself conducting the search by the light of the full moon. A Ford Bronco of this era was a popular, utilitarian vehicle found throughout Texas. Under normal circumstances, I could have described the vehicle in great detail. But the belly of the beast looks much different. Grass, sticks, shrubbery and mud, collected during the bounding, downhill ride before the vehicle launched airborne and flipped into the creek, filled nearly every void of the SUV’s underside. After visualizing what I felt certain was the fuel tank, I was able to orient myself as to where the passenger side of the vehicle was located. Reaching for a door handle, I discovered the window of the passenger-side door was open. As I extended my arm into the vehicle searching for my victim, I dipped my head below the surface of the water for the first time. Cold took on an entirely new definition at that moment as the chilly water came in contact with my face and filled my ears. Although I was only able to remain under water for a few seconds, it was long enough for me to determine that the person for whom I was looking wasn’t easily accessible from where I stood—if he was still in the vehicle.
Once I surfaced, I noticed other rescuers had arrived. Fortunately, their first actions were to throw me ropes that I used to tie-off myself and the vehicle and then to illuminate the scene. While securing the submerged Bronco, I realized where I had been searching was on the downstream side of the vehicle and instructed those along the edge of the creek to scan the water and both banks from my location in the direction of the current. I changed my search to the upstream side of the vehicle on a hunch that I might be able to feel the victim from the driver’s side. My hunch was correct. As I labored in my overweight attire to walk around the vehicle, against the current in the cold, dark water, I bumped into something just below the surface. Reaching both hands around the object, I knew my discovery was what I had been searching for. Four appendages, a head and torso were unquestionably human. The missing passenger had been partially successful at escaping through the driver’s-side window, but for some reason, his egress stopped prematurely. Perhaps he was overcome with cold. Perhaps he became unconscious due to lack of oxygen. Or, maybe, he was simply disoriented by the darkness and inverted interior and didn’t know which way to flee for survival. We’ll never know. I pulled his limp, two-hundred pound, six-foot tall body the remainder of the way out of the vehicle, and turned him upright as if I was a lifeguard rescuing a swimmer in distress. The cold, pale flesh of his cheek pressed against mine. Both of his eyes were open, grey and lifeless. His mouth was full of water. It was a bizarre and surreal intimacy I’d never experienced with another person and to this day have yet to repeat.
After yelling out to the others that I had found my patient, I turned toward the bank just as the light towers were illuminated. I was nearly blinded by their brilliance, but could still make out silhouettes of my fellow rescuers. As they marched toward me, the scene resembled that of the kidnapped earthlings walking down the ramp of the mother spacecraft at the end of Close Encounters. Those coming for us were but vague, nondescript, dark shapes whose voices were obscured by the whir of the generator and wail of approaching sirens. People experiencing near-death experiences describe seeing a light. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was that light. Worse, I couldn’t be sure if was it for my patient or for me?
By now, I was utterly exhausted. The weight of the young man’s body, now added to that of my waterlogged garments, proved to be too much. I slipped beneath the surface of the water. In what seemed like an eternity, but was actually only few seconds, two of my fellow firefighters pulled me and the passenger’s flaccid body to shore. While some of the medics initiated CPR on the young man, others stripped me of my cold, soggy clothing before wrapping me in blankets. An ambulance soon arrived, and our patient was whisked off to Brackenridge Hospital in Austin—a good thirty minutes away. Paramedics transporting the patient were successful in getting the patient’s heart beating again. There were a few hours of elation as we felt that perhaps our efforts had spared the life of the young college student. Our celebration was premature. He didn’t survive. A part of me died that night as well.
Some five years later, I found myself in therapy for PTSD. My mother had recently died a slow, agonizing death from pancreatic cancer. I was having nightmares where I would be attempting to dial 911 for help, but each time I tried, I would dial 912…then 910…then 991. I could never succeed in my efforts, and my attempts to summon help were forever futile. I couldn’t escape the sensations of the extreme cold, the daunting weight, the disorienting slow motion, and the profound darkness of death as it approached me from all sides. They all seemed like legs under the stool of death to me—the same death that my young patient experienced. I wondered if he, too, had seen a light, but a different light. Mine, unlike his, had been the light to life. His was, well, I’ll let you be the judge of that.
That wonderful psychologist listened to my story, helped me put my most terrifying memories from the Barton Creek rescue into perspective, and she made me realize the latent fears I’d acquired were not uncommon. She explained the helplessness of which I dreamed was a manifestation of that which I felt while I was unable to help my mother overcome her illness. She helped me understand that the frustration I’d experienced when my efforts to save a life were for naught, this individual’s demise was not due to my actions, but rather the particular circumstances of that individual. After several years of her nurturing and a few hundred Prozac, I considered myself ‘cured.’ I never regarded my ‘condition’ as debilitating. Having said that, I won’t go on a cruise ship. When I take the ferry at Port Aransas, I have to stand at the rail so I can dive overboard in the unlikely event the craft takes on water and capsizes. I dislike bridges and roads that cross dams, fearing I am one subtle turn of the steering wheel from ending up in the water. Worst of all, I won’t go back into Barton Springs. There is something unsettling to me about the knowledge of what took place upstream.
Several years ago, I found myself riveted to Kevin Costner’s movie, The Guardian. Until seeing that movie, I thought it had been largely my reaction to my mother’s death that had pushed me into the abyss of PTSD. But as I watched the rescue swimmer in the movie experience the cold, the force of the water, the disorientation, and the darkness, I was there, with Kevin Costner, in the water, and I was once again scared to death. I felt every bit of the dreadful sensations I’d experienced years earlier, but this time from the comfort of my living room sofa. Of the aspects I associate with death that violated my body that night at Barton Creek, all involved complete, unmerciful immersion. The cold, the drenching, the darkness, the pressure against my body, had been all-encompassing—toes, arms, head, legs, torso—and they were absolutely inescapable. It was then that I realized the extent to which I’ve still not broken away from their grasp.
I am still a paramedic and firefighter. I still answer a stranger’s call for help time and time again. I still assist patients with their God-given miracle of life. Sometimes, I must ease my patient’s pain during their journey toward death. More often than I’d like, my actions are ineffectual or come too late. But unlike Costner’s character in the movie, after thirty-seven years dedicated to my medical ministry, I count neither how many lives I have saved, nor how many I have lost. That’s a game of numbers nobody will win. I also tell my fellow rescuers that I will never, under any circumstances, be able to get into cold, dark water again—especially at night. For it was there that I lived death.
At some point in the past decade I decided to confront my fears head on. I have achieved what is called Flood & Swiftwater Technician level II certification. That means I have trained in at least Class 3, deep, cold water both in the light of day and the dark of night. Initially, I wasn't sure if I could do it. I should never have underestimated myself.
Concurrently, I achieved Vertical Rescue Technician level III. Not bad for an old fart.
Around 1958 +/-, I was walking hand-in-hand with my sister on one side and my mother on the other as we walked past the Urbana, Illinois firehouse (photo right). One of the firemen shouted, "Fire!" and pointed at a car on fire at a gas station about 1 block away. Two fire trucks raced out of the station. I knew then I was hooked.
Zoom forward to 1973. The war in Vietnam is still ongoing, albeit winding down. I thought it better to go to college than to pursue firefighting thinking a college deferral was the best thing for me. I'll never be happy with my choice. I feel as though I betrayed other men my age. What's done is done.
Then the war ended. I thought I'd give public service a try. On the same autumn day in 1975 I took a civil service exam and bombed it. That night I took a physics exam and passed. It was a sign. Firefighting would have to come some other way.
Around 1980, I began one of my regular runs around Town Lake in Austin. I started my runs at the First Street Bridge. All of the sudden there was a terrible commotion. A young lady who had been riding her bicycle with her boyfriend on the narrow sidewalk had slipped off into the path of a large truck. I stood there, helplessly not knowing what to do as she quickly died in front of my eyes. I vowed to never let that happen again.
In 1981 I joined my first volunteer fire department. Except for a short hiatus I've been in the fire service ever since and I've loved every minute of it. I loved it so much that I applied to the Austin Fire Department and made it to #3 on their eligibility list. A huge pay cut from engineer to firefighter, with a new house, and a new daughter weren't a viable combination. I turned the opportunity down. Feel my pain.
To do what I do takes a very supportive wife and family. I couldn't have asked for better. I have to drop whatever I'm doing all too often to answer a call. I work long hours. There are increasing menacing factors that make the job of firefighter/paramedic more risky with each passing day. I am blessed to be doing what I do.