In November of 2013, at the age of 33 I was rushed into the emergency room, nine weeks postpartum with extreme shortness of breath. I wasn’t supposed to be on this side of the curtain, I was used to being part of the medical team as I had spent countless years as a volunteer firefighter and had been working for a few years as an emergency medical technician.
I had the knowledge of what different rooms in the emergency department meant and how critical you actually were based on how quickly the team moved and how many of them were surrounding you. I knew something was very wrong as I was wheeled past my basic emergency room bed and taken quickly over to the trauma bay. All I could hear through my struggles to breathe were whispers of the medical team trying furiously to save my life. IV’s in both arms, a 12-lead set up and monitoring every heart beat, the oxygen sensor being placed on different fingers to make sure it was reading correctly because afterall I should not be at 83%! All I could think about were my three boys and my husband. How it seemed like just moments ago, not years, but moments I was blessed with them as my own. I kept thinking that this had to be a nightmare, this had to be from the lack of sleep I was experiencing with a newborn at home and I was going to wake up. The look in my husbands eyes as they pulled back the curtain to transfer me upstairs to the Cardiac Care Unit said it all. The fear and pain I saw I can never unsee. I thought I was there for a simple pneumonia and as it turned out if I hadn’t forced myself to go the my doctor like I had, I would no longer be alive. The gravity of that was surreal. I honestly can only remember the looks on the medical teams faces and hearing my own breath through the oxygen mask. The words were echoed as they spoke to me about my condition and told me I was being admitted for at least a week. I wasn’t absorbing much else. I remember closing my eyes for what I thought was just a second to wake up a day later in my hospital room to discover that my world would forever be changed. Everything I thought I had the answers to no longer made sense. I wanted solid, true facts right then and there. But I was disappointed to find that patience was going to become my worst enemy. As it stood, I had none, and it was the one thing I needed most at this very moment in time. I spent seven days in recovery with tubes in and out of every part of me. When I was discharged I was sent home with a book of instructions on how to live as a heart failure patient. There was hope for a full recovery over the next twelve months but nothing was guaranteed and no promises could be made. All I had was what little faith was left in me and hope.
Over the next year I became someone different. I was scared to live the life that had been so graciously saved for me. I was living like I was already dead. I couldn’t make plans for the future because I didn’t believe I had one. It was a year filled with specialist visits, life vests, cardiac rehab and talks of surgery should my heart continue to be as weak as it was. I became an expert on left ventricular function and what a healthy heart versus my heart looked like. I was all too familiar with the blood tests that were run to ensure the medications you take for strengthening the heart weren’t failing your other vital organs. What the difference between an EKG and an Echocardiogram were. Something called a MUGA scan and the all too familiar cardiac stress test! I also became accustomed to extreme fatigue.
Two naps a day minimum were what I needed to just barely function. I was a shell of who I had been and it was all just beginning. At the end of this year my heart only slightly increased in strength and surgery number one took place. An internal cardiac defibrillator was placed and I was no longer recovering, I was a lifelong heart failure patient. Not an easy pill to swallow for a thirty something mother of 3 boys with a career that expected top physical performance and the ability to run on empty
and now added to my diagnosis of cardiomyopathy came post traumatic stress.
It took the better part of two years for me to come around and start to understand that nothing in life is guaranteed and if I did not work hard and push through the physical and mental struggles of what had occurred for this new version of myself and take advantage of every moment then I was wasting the gift I was given, the very reason I was put on this earth.
HeroPeers comes to life…
It wasn’t months or years in the making. It was the culmination of what my near death had forced me to see the months of crying myself to sleep, visions and nightmares, depression and thoughts of self harm that I had become all too familiar with because of the lack of peer to peer care available to first responders dealing with post traumatic stress or PTS(D) after the countless emergencies and traumatic
incidents we respond to. In our career paths (EMS, Fire, PD) we know what we may be up against, and yet while we understand what we can face, actually coming up against the worst possible scenario is nothing anyone of us is ever prepared for. Sudden, unexpected death of yourself or any other human being is not something I feel anyone, no matter what their background can be prepared for and personally I had just dealt with both of these scenarios in less than 24 months. I had been forced to face the reality of my own life ending as well as witness the sudden, unexpected death of too many others. I was the mother of two young boys at the time of my worst call and when I say nightmare, that paints the picture for something much nicer than what it actually was. An accident is one thing, an intentional
death of anyone, especially a child is another and that is what we were up against. As a mother, the feelings I had are something I will never be able to put into words. As a professional called to assist in this trauma I can tell you the grief and pain in all those that were there was so heavy it was almost unbearable to face for a long time following. When we answer a call the personal “hats” come off. We are not mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, women, men, husbands or wives. We are trained professionals expected to execute specific tasks in hopes of saving a life or lives and making what could have been a persons worst day the best we possibly can with the experience we have.
We live most of our conscious time in “fight or flight” always trying to be ready for anything. The adrenaline and the thought processes that take over, overshadow the grief and pain that will come for us in the hours, days and weeks following. They allow us to do our jobs without becoming emotional wrecks on scene, in the back of the ambulance or at the hospital where the patient needs us to be their strongest ally. It takes a very specific type of person to be able to do this work. I say we are born for it. Without helping others and responding to these calls we do not feel like we are serving our purpose. Other jobs may pay more and may have ideal hours, even holidays off but that doesn’t matter to us because this is what we feel “at home” doing. Nothing can replace that feeling of fulfillment. The morning I decidedto move forward in what ended up being a whirlwind of events to jump start HeroPeers I awoke knowing with every fiber of my being that something had to change and I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I was raised by very strong, independent women to be the best I could be no matter what adversity I faced and I would be damned if I was going to let them down. This disease would not define me or take my life with it, I would define it. I would use it as the power behind positively influencing the lives of so many others who too were suffering. HeroPeers would be the peer to peer support that did not currently exist in our area and utilize those heroes that too could empathize not just sympathize with what each other had gone through and most definitely if we remained in these career fields, would continue to battle.
Throughout my time in emergency services I found that all too often I would hear both patients and other folks employed in these fields talking about being overwhelmed, ready to throw in the towel so to speak because they just don’t think they have anymore to give to anyone or anything. I am not talking about death, although I am sure many like myself over the course of their careers and lives have had
suicidal ideologies. The job related stress and mental fatigue place those in these fields at one of the highest burnout rates among any other career field. Type A personalities as most of us are labeled tend to take the world on our shoulders. We are healers and love to help others in any way we can even at the sacrifice of our own mental and physical well being. This is not purposeful by any means, in most cases we do not even see that we are doing this or that there is a problem until it has gone too far.
I began spending my time learning coping mechanisms and researching PTSD and rebuilding a healthier, happier me that I would share with so many others through my own trials and tribulations with HeroPeers. I hear the saying, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” or some derivative of such time and time again. With that, I ask you- won’t he? After all, would we strive to be better if we weren’t pushed by that inner voice telling us to be bigger, be stronger, to do it again?
What if we all settled for mediocre and were content with it? How would this world of fantastic, self motivated and powerful women look? I’m focusing on women here because, well hey, I am one! How would our daughters view us? How would men view us? I am a firm believer that we reach a comfort level and become good at it, expert really and just when things begin to look easy and we are content the pot is not just stirred but flipped upside down and dumped out to challenge us to start fresh and be even better! It is not so much about what we CAN handle as it is what we THINK we can’t. Nothing is impossible with hard work and a strong faith believing that as women there is nothing we cannot conquer on or own or in numbers. We create life inside of us or we adopt life others have created as our own. We take that life and we nurture it for the remainder of the time we are blessed with.
If that isn’t miraculous within itself then what is? We are strong, we are brave and we are defining what the future holds for all the women to come just as those before us did for the generations to follow. I’m venturing a guess at saying that I am not the only woman who feels like life, or time, or is it life, UGH! Regardless, they both equally seem to fly by! Am I right? Wasn’t it yesterday we were all just
nineteen and carefree living for the moment and having fun storming through our self destructive, chaotic life without a care in the world? We were indestructible and selfish, rightfully so at that tender age without any regard for what was to come. Diet? HA! We could eat anything. Political correctness?
What is that? We said what was on our mind without fear of repercussion or a care for who thought ill of it because after all we knew everything! Or so we thought. Alarm clocks? No! Who needs sleep when life is so much fun and our youth has yet to tell our body it’s time to take it down about ten notches! Then one day, somehow what feels like moments, seconds even, becomes years and before we know it a lifetime has passed. We closed our eyes and suddenly we are wives, mothers, full-time taxi-cabs, chefs, nanny’s and nurse maids! Where did the time go? Who are these people we have
created or better yet, who is THIS person we are staring at in bathroom mirror at 5am because that is the only time we have to ourselves before life erupts in madness for the next 15 hours of our day?! We take a few brief moments and look at her, this person we have become and ask, did we answer the dreams of that teenager who aspired to be so many things? Have we made a difference or accomplished goals that were set or did we settle for comfort and a life we hadn’t at that age thought we would ever have? Are we stunned at what we are looking at or are we fulfilled in all that we have become?
In my “recovery” stage I spent too many hours asking myself these questions and staring at someone I didn’t feel like I knew anymore until I found my purpose. It can be a struggle but you will find it if you dig deep. Have any of you blinked and had this moment or maybe a few moments of realization that time does not cater to any of us as we naively thought that it would so many moons ago? The clock never stops moving whether we are on board or not. We are older, some wiser and there is a whole new generation of late teens that have replaced us in those thoughts of never ending youth.
Are we molding them and setting a good example to follow? I have had many of these moments and in them I have learned to lean heavily on my closest friends, coworkers and even my superiors. Those who make me want to strive for better, for more. The ones that when I feel like I cannot do anything more or less, show me that someone has, so why not me? And, I leaned on my faith. Without faith and the belief that there is something so much more than any of us ever could imagine waiting for us what would be the point? I’ve told you a short version of my story to show how much we can strive for better to help others around us even when we feel like we have nothing to give. But most of all how we need to utilize this thing called time and understand that we never have more on our plate than we can handlewe are meant to handle anything! God does not discriminate-he pushes everyone of us no matter what issues we are facing at that moment to try harder and be better. I found my purpose in HeroPeers. It is still a work in progress, but I believe in it and that’s what will matter. So with that, I say again, your plate is never full. Strive to find your gift, your purpose and always seek to make it better day in and day out.