At 6´1" and 180 lbs., Olympic gold medalist Jason Read, the 27-year-old chief of operations at Amwell Valley Rescue Squad in Hunterdon County, NJ, is not a big guy by EMT standards. By Olympic-level men’s eight crew standards, except for the coxswain who does not row, he’s the little guy. Four years ago, many doubted Read would make the team. Not him. The story of this “elite athlete,” a term of art for Olympians and others who compete internationally, as he does, is the story of heart. It’s a story for any EMT, as he also is, who has ever suffered a sleepless night after a call and found the inner strength to persevere. And it’s for anyone who has ever been told, “You can’t,” and found the power within to answer, “Watch me.”
An Unexpected Turn of Events
Crew was once America’s premier summer Olympics event, but until the Athens games, the U.S. men’s eight team had not won a gold medal since the 1960s. With most rowers sizing up at 6´3"–6´7" and 200–215 lbs., Read’s been summoning the extra pounds of power from within himself to compete since his first crew practice at age 14, the same year he started volunteering at a rescue squad. When he got cut from the team for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, he vowed to make it to Athens in 2004.
But who could have planned for 9/11? Like the rest of us going about our business that day, Read hadn’t factored the impact of referred trauma into his plan.
“In the public safety field,” Read tells us, “everybody says, ‘I’ll see ya at the Big One…I’ll see ya at the Big One…’ Well, this was the Big One.” Read got the call.
Read’s squad, where he was the youngest chief ever at age 23, was activated as part of the New Jersey State First Aid Council’s mobilization model. Over 400 volunteer BLS units from around the state converged with 120 of the nation’s top trauma surgeons, who happened to be attending a major trauma conference at the Meadowlands that day, says Read.
“By about noon we had set up a major field hospital—a MASH unit with a nurse and four EMTs per surgeon—at Liberty State Park in Jersey City overlooking lower Manhattan. The thinking was that NYC hospitals would be inundated with patients. We expected to get ferry after ferry of critically injured people.”
Read, also a volunteer firefighter at Hopewell Fire Department and a communications specialist at Capital Health Systems’ 9-1-1 center, both in Mercer County, NJ, was the assigned communications officer; he waited for word of their arrival. But the patients never came.
“The sobering reality was everybody else who hadn’t escaped the buildings was killed,” he says.
So, Read was sent to Ground Zero with other experienced medics to assist the FDNY chiefs in setting up a treatment area on the southwest side of the site and to search for survivors.
“We thought there were going to be pockets of space where people would be found alive,” he says. “At this point, no one had become consumed with emotion yet, it was just all very purposeful.”
But, as everyone now knows, there were no survivors. The rescuers turned their efforts to recovering body parts and personal effects and carrying them, zipped into body bags, onto refrigerated trucks. Read worked through Saturday when, exhausted from little sleep and utter frustration, he needed to resume his studies at Temple University, where he was majoring in business on a four-year rowing scholarship. But the shock and sense of loss took their toll. Read has no problem admitting there were tears and feelings of helplessness. He withdrew deep into himself.
“I couldn’t sleep because I’d have nightmares—not necessarily about being there or about fire, rescue, public safety-related stuff—just nightmares,” he says. “I had literally no attention span all that fall and on through the winter.”
Even more disturbing, he suddenly lost memory, blanking out many of the details of those days, as he learned was common to soldiers who had seen “too many images they could not process nor reflect upon,” a symptom of post-traumatic stress.
He found himself staying up all night searching the Internet for clues, unable to make sense of what he had seen.
“In hindsight,” he says, “I got some bad advice from the administration of the school. The dean should have told me to take a year off and postpone my graduation, instead of the old ‘Let’s try to get through this’ thing.”
Read threw himself into rowing and started going to a Catholic church, moved by the support he’d received from the Catholic chaplain of the national rowing team at Princeton, where they trained. He was confirmed on Easter of 2002, 10 years to the day after he first stepped inside a rescue squad building and made that youthful commitment to be there for people in emergencies.
Over the next year or two, he says, his memories and concentration returned. He credits converting to Catholicism with giving him the spiritual foundation from which to persevere.
“And rowing, certainly. That was therapy. You’re in this regimented situation where you have to perform or you’re going to get cut. My dream was still to make the Olympic team.”
He did make the team and traveled to Athens to row with six others and a coxswain in the big event, where the U.S. crew won gold for the first time in 40 years, breaking the world record to press the point.
For Read, “it was a life-changing experience.” He says the process from Ground Zero to Olympic gold taught him that it’s crucial to “surround yourself with a great network of friends, take ownership of your actions and persevere. Be positive and be tenacious. In the last three years, I’ve experienced the worst side of human nature and the best human emotions you could ever imagine, man’s lowest impulse to destroy, and our highest, to do your best within the context of a team. It took all of us being on the same page to do that; none of us can do it alone.”
A popular speaker in the EMS industry, Read was recently seen shaking hands and signing autographs at the EMSAR booth at EMS EXPO in Atlanta, GA.