My father died helping someone else, his wife at his side.
A medical alarm sounded for a call across the street from their house. Like they’d done many times before, they offered to first-respond despite not being on shift. The responding agency was 20 minutes out, so they got the go-ahead.
My wife and I heard a call for “medic down” and thought it was a responder from that agency’s area. Because that jurisdiction uses a different radio frequency than we do, we couldn’t hear the originating traffic, just dispatch copying and repeating the information.
We knew we had to respond because a badge brother was hurt. My wife took this one because she didn’t have to work the next day. I did, so I stayed home with our son. We didn’t know who the downed responder was, but even if we’d had the information, how can I know that decision would have been different?
As it turned out my parents had arrived and were setting up equipment. The patient was experiencing sharp chest pains and difficulty breathing and had a history of cardiac events, with an internal defibrillator that kept firing over the course of the call.
While my mother drew medication, my father was hooking up the oxygen kit. He suddenly stopped. My mother noticed and looked over to him. He turned to her, and their eyes met. Then my father dropped to the ground. No clutching of the chest, no screams or yells, no pained stare and guttural moan. He just dropped, his feet disappearing from under his body like the earthly world had pulled away.
My mother was the only other EMT on location and immediately got on the radio for help. She looked at the original patient and saw he was focused on my father too. He said he would be fine and told her to help her partner. My mother turned her attention back to her husband and saw him facedown in a potted plant, nonresponsive and not breathing.
As emergency responders we rarely consider the weight of having to help each other outside of a training scenario. Seeing your coworker not breathing and obviously dying is extremely stressful and scary, because you are each other’s backup. Now you’re it. You have nobody to gather your gear, prepare your tools, or spur your memory on steps and algorithms.
My mother got down to business like she always does. She pulled him away from the wall toward the center of the floor. With more than 40 years of EMS and emergency room experience, she knew how to focus on the situation and not the person. He wasn’t breathing, so she intubated him, initiated CPR, provided shocks, and gave orders to arriving caregivers.
Only after the call did she realize how much of her tool kit was used on her own life partner, and she never looked at it the same way. What we do to save lives can be very abstract—some people need fewer tools than others. Touching the tools brings back both training and memories.
EMS providers from all over came racing to help when they heard. Responders from five different communities formed a cohesive band. Five ambulances responded: one for the initial patient, one for my father, one for my mother, and two for other responders who would need comfort and care. The regional EMS training coordinator arrived. State police were there.
Due to the distances involved, the incident commander began calling for medevac options, including a helicopter that declined due to dense fog at its base. A fixed-wing offered to land at either of two airports within 25 miles of the scene, and the IC accepted. The airplane was spooled up and ready to launch as soon as air traffic control cleared a 2,000-foot deck for them to punch through the fog, but they had to abort before launch because the medical decision was made to call the code.
Pain will follow many of us for the rest of our lives. I feel I should have been there instead of my wife, but I also know my presence in her place would not have made a difference. Every responder on that scene will be chased by the shadow of knowing one of their brothers died on the job and there was nothing they could do to change it—everything was done by the book.
My father died that day—two days before his youngest grandson’s first birthday, five days before his stepdaughter’s 22nd, and 60 days before his own 68th. We all believe in helping others, but we rarely believe we will have to help each other. That’s what needs to change.
My mother lost her partner in life and EMS on that call, and despite her experience she wasn’t prepared for the emotional toll. In fact, the entire crew wasn’t prepared—many paid-on-call members left the service due to the stress and emotional aftermath.
As a profession we don’t do enough to prepare people for the reality of what happens if it hits home. In the end we aren’t just out there to save our community and commuters; we need to be here for each other and ready to support our partners when someone doesn’t go home.
My mother continued her service for five more years. I aspire to be as dedicated a responder as her, to face any triggers and emotional stress and move forward to save more lives. I pray I can be as honorable a rescuer as my father was, and that if my last breath is stolen from me by fate, it be taken while helping someone else keep theirs.
Christian Hartley is fire chief for the city of Houston, Alaska. He is a second-generation responder who has worked in EMS, corrections, and the fire service since 1999.