I first signed up to ride in the National EMS Memorial Bike Ride in 2008, not knowing what to expect. I registered mainly as an incentive to help rehab from a bout with staphylococcus bacterial meningitis, but I quickly discovered participating in the ride had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the families left behind.
That was the year I met the family of Christa Burchett, a 33-year-old EMS director and assistant fire chief from Paintsville, KY, who was killed on January 22, 2008. A vehicle lost control on icy roads and struck Christa while she was loading a patient into an ambulance just outside of town.
As we rode into the small community of 5,000 residents, it seemed like the whole town had turned out in support for Christa along the parade route leading to the station. Even the hospital staff in uniforms and scrubs stood along the street and waved (recently back from dropping off goody bags in our hotel rooms as we later found out).
At the station Christa’s mother was still inconsolable, agonized by the loss of her daughter, and accompanied by her 14-year-old motherless granddaughter. Words failed me then, and all I could do was repeat, “I am so sorry for your loss.”
That’s why this year I vowed to be better prepared. Each year the National EMS Memorial Bike Ride participants wear a set of dog tags representing a memorial honoree. One tag is sent to the loved one after the ride, or given in person if the survivors are present.
For this year’s three-day bike ride to the memorial we talked about words that would help the riders at that poignant, but sometimes awkward, exchange with the families. Each day of the ride we discussed a number of words (to match the day) to help get them through that in-person moment.
Survivors want the reassurance that the honorees' lives made a difference, so day one’s word was impact, “First of all, these dog tags symbolize the impact your loved one had in their community—and they did have an impact. We all get into EMS to serve and make a difference.”
Day two was colleagues care: “Secondly, colleagues and coworkers from all over the country, that share your loved one’s same passion, ride in separate events wearing these tags to honor and celebrate their lives. We care for them and for the families and friends they left behind.”
Day three was share the pain: “Finally we share your pain. Our pain is more physical while yours is more emotional, but we pray that these dog tags will encourage you to endure your pain, as we endured ours.”