by Mike Crowe
Editor’s Note: Over the years, I have received hundreds of articles from firefighters, EMS, officers, and so on. Mike’s article is by far one of the most poignant stories about his fight to LIVE in spite of his post-traumatic stress and to help others coping with the same.
WARNING: This article MAY be a trigger some people
I grew up in a small town where the town siren would go off when there was a fire or an ambulance call. Every time I heard that I would run to the curb of my house to see the people responding and to watch the fire trucks and ambulance go by.
After a four-year stint in the Navy, I started to follow my dream of becoming a paramedic by getting my EMT-A certification. I worked for a short time as a volunteer before working for an ambulance company in Omaha, Nebraska primarily doing nursing home and hospital runs. The hospital in Omaha had its own rescue and ambulance, but I still got experience.
About six months after earning my EMT I decided to start my education towards my paramedic license by taking the EMT-I course. I continue to work as a part-time EMT for the town that I lived in doing primarily chest pain type calls, shortness of breath, diabetes, and an occasional car accident. My true first experience that I would call “real” was in Topeka, KS where I had moved so I could be closer to the college I attended to get my paramedic degree. After working for several years, I moved to Iowa for an opportunity to become a paramedic in Des Moines. Unfortunately, that did not pan out and I began running the service volunteers as a paid administrator. Then I had a house fire at which point the chief, right or wrong, approached me and asked me if I wanted a job at the fire department. Of course, I tested and was hired within 21/2 months.
I had seen pediatric deaths a couple of times. Between Topeka and Atchison where I worked for a hospital-based service, I ran my own first pediatric death from a car accident and had a couple of couple pediatric calls after that. I should have known that those calls affected me because I realized that I was quick to become angry and defensive, but I kept working until I became a firefighter.
During the sixth year as a firefighter, we responded to a call that changed my life forever. An eight-month-old boy named Chase and a fire. It was August of 2008. I do not want to get into the specific details as I do not want to trigger myself but suffice it to say this was not a typical fire nor was the little boy’s death typical in any way. Even for a fire.
The chief at the time, even though two other qualified paramedics had pronounced the child deceased in the garage ordered me to go do an assessment on him and ensure that he was deceased. I asked him why because so and so and so and so had already done that and he said, “get back in there and check the child”. What I saw uncovering just the arm and torso of the child was enough for me. I covered him back up, said a prayer, and left the garage with the chief standing there not saying a word.
I remember getting so angry on scene then I punched the side of the fire truck. I was throwing tools. I was yelling at people. I just felt as though I had lost all control. I went back to the station after the call and cried alone. The other members of the six-man crew were telling jokes, laughing, and acting like nothing had happened. I wished I could have done that at that time because maybe that resiliency that they had would have kept me from the darker places that I ended up going.
Over the next couple of years, I became jaded and probably started developing compassion fatigue. My marriage was basically over from all the anger that I had. I was punching holes in walls. I was screaming at my children whom I love very much. I was pretty much intolerable to be around. I began drinking heavily behind everyone’s back. But ultimately, they knew my secret because they could smell it, or they could see my behavioral changes. Nothing mattered though.
I just wanted the pain and the images to go away.
In January 2010, I found out that my spouse had been cheating on me with an individual who was “involved” and present at the fire of 2008. I was filled with anger, hate, despair, sadness, heartbreak, everything that they teach you about grieving in paramedic school. On Father’s Day of the same year, after many nights of leaving and coming home the next day, I realized that she had become addicted to methamphetamine and other drugs and she said she was leaving. For whatever reason, I groveled at her feet crying like a baby begging her to stay when I knew that the relationship was toxic. I was beyond broken and in denial.
She left that night and never came back leaving me with my four children. Immediately I went and bought a bottle of whiskey and drank it that afternoon. I then decided that I was done living. I tried counseling with no success and just gave up. One day I told the kids that I was going to go take a nap in the bedroom. My son was not home at the time. I had put a small dresser in front of the main bedroom door and went into the closet and closed the door. We had a walk-in bedroom closet and I tied one end of the extension cord to the rail and the other end around my neck and I made it short. As I began to kneel or attempt to kneel because my knees would not touch the floor, I was starting to lose consciousness. My son came into the closet. He had broken down the door to get into the bedroom. He lifted me up the best he could, and he called my oldest daughter to get a pair of scissors. They cut through the extension cord and took it off my neck.
I obviously did not teach them well because they did not call 911 first, so I was not taken into custody or court-ordered protection. I was driven to the hospital after promising my children I would get help. My wife had come over when my kids called her. In the front yard, she started calling me names and telling me how worthless I was and how I could not even do my job correctly. I remember standing under a tree and trying to go after her and slipping and falling in the mud on my face and her laughing as I was still drunk and recovering from the lack of oxygen. My kids implored me to “just get in the car and go”. I voluntarily committed myself to a behavioral health unit for five days. During those five days, my then-wife was supposed to take care of the children, but she was not with them at all. They stayed home and took care of each other.
After I got out of the hospital I went back to work. My daughter had called me in sick for the two shifts that I missed, but I was not the same person at all. I worked a few shifts drinking every night in between and ended up missing almost a weeks worth of work because I was so drunk. By this time, my oldest had left for college, my son was living with friends and my youngest two children were staying with my pastor’s family.
Finally, in September 2013 I went to my captain and told him that I had a problem and I needed help. He made me go talk to the chief who was new to the fire service and he told me I needed to pull up my bootstraps and get back on the ambulance and get to work as that was the best thing for me. I was not taking that. In November of the same year, I sat beside my mother’s bed and watched her suffer in agony from cancer and Alzheimer’s at 62 years old until she took her final breath.
I did not go back to work after that. I used up all my vacation, sick time, and PTO. I was placed on FMLA while I was waiting on the paperwork, I had submitted to the state for retirement based on a diagnosis of PTSD which was determined about eight months earlier by my new therapist. After rounds of tests by different psychiatrists at the University of Iowa in Des Moines and other places, I cannot remember. I was informed that I ran out of FMLA and was told to either get back to work or submit my resignation.
What makes me most bitter about all of this is the fact that another firefighter had fallen on the ice and injured his shoulder and was placed on light duty after he ran out of sick time, vacation, and so on until his retirement came through. But I was not afforded that opportunity because I was “just weak”. Obviously, I did what I had to do and submitted my resignation effective immediately. January 21st, my birthday.
At this time, my children’s mother was back in their lives and wanted the younger two children 50% of the time. Prior to divorce proceedings, there was a temporary court order that gave us 50/50 parenting time, and my son was at the age where he could make his own decision and stayed with a friend. I had nothing in the house I rented but an old beat-up sectional, a television, a couple pots and pans, and a mattress on the living room floor is a bed. I felt as though I had lost everything.
One day I turned on the TV and came across a channel where a man was talking about a relationship and how Jesus can help you out of the darkest mire and sustain you if you will let Him. There was more to it than that, but I do not want to get too religious for the reader. We will just say I found my faith. I got on Match.com just to see what it was about. A 40-year-old woman sent me a request which meant she was interested. I contacted her. Two and a half years later we were married and have been married for almost 9 years now.
I have been seeing the same therapy group for the past six years on a consistent basis and feel like I am where I have never been in my life. That is a good feeling. Unfortunately, I know what first responders go through with mental health and the stigma of society including inside their own departments and ranks.
For this reason, I have started a Facebook group called Hero’s Comfort. It is a peer support system for any first responder that struggles with PTSD or acute stress disorder and just needs somebody to listen to them. The membership is growing. I have videos almost daily on Facebook teaching them coping strategies and how to identify when they need to get professional help. I am now a certified State Peer Support Specialist, a credentialed chaplain for the County Sheriff’s department, a CISD/CISM team member in central Iowa and am pursuing a Master’s in Psychology-Crisis Intervention.
I am also working on calling on the state legislature to make PTSD a presumptive condition for the fire service. But the main thing that I am working towards is providing Tele Health or Tele Med services for people that need therapy via license social workers, psychologists, or other counselors. This will prevent the worry that the first responder has that he is going to be seen going into one of these buildings and must face the repercussions at the fire Department or Police Department that they work for because I know not that will happen. It is a shame the leads had to come to this because of the sacrifices that men and women make by their own choice day in and day out. The worst of times never being called to Susie’s birthday party for some cake and ice cream.
My goal is to have licensed professionals on staff that will provide up to two or three free sessions as a gift back to the responder and then if the responder needs further therapy or counseling, they will be on a sliding scale because most of the firefighters in the country are volunteer and work jobs that make minuscule wages and their insurance is terrible even if they have it.
I am working with a former medical director of a major hospital in Des Moines and some other people to figure out exactly how to get this done without causing conflicts of interest for the therapists but providing the services that the first responders need so badly.
We hope to have the service up and running by the fall of 2021 so that we can offer the services that our heroes need but are reluctant to get because of the stigma in our society. That is our battle.
About the Author: After high school, Mike served in the Navy, where he realized he wanted to join the medical field as a first responder. He eventually earned his EMT-A and worked several years in that position before joining the Army and earning an Expert Field Medic Badge as a Combat Medic. After the Army and working other jobs, Mike decided to get a paramedic degree in Kansas where he worked for 9-1-1 services for about 10 years before becoming a firefighter/paramedic in Iowa.
In 2013, Mike was medically retired/disabled from the service due to PTSD. His passion now is providing help to those who still serve as first responders and to squash the stigma associated with PTSD. Please feel free to contact Mike Crowe at email@example.com if you are a first responder and need someone to help you. His Facebook page is Hero’s Comfort.