It was the summer of 2005, I had been working in EMS for a little over 3 years but had just recently become a Paramedic, when I was dispatched to my very first active shooter scene. It was a strange time; an abnormal increase in violent ridden 911 calls and civil unrest. We were at odds with each other as well – many pulling for EMS uniforms fashioned after Police, with a few others (like me!) pushing for another style (ANY! other style) in order to create obvious separation between armed law enforcement and unarmed EMS. Majority rules in Union situations though and so there I was – wearing blue, with patches and badges – looking way too much like the Officer standing over me, as I tended to the patient on the ground, confirming his death.
I had been told the scene was safe. This is Rule #1 when working in EMS – “SCENE SAFETY” – especially in a scene like this. So, imagine my surprise (and my verbally unfiltered mouth) as I heard the scuffling of a foot chase coming from the second floor of this abandoned building and the policeman’s radio crackling: “Shooter on the roof! Heading towards the staircase!”. I looked up at the Officer standing over me, as he reached for his gun, and realized that I was on my hands and knees at the base of this building’s staircase.
“You told me this scene was safe!”, I yelled at him as my partner and I quickly gathered our equipment and started running for the exit.
“Well, it’s not anymore, so get gone!”, he yelled back as he took cover, in anticipation of the now certain confrontation.
As my partner and I ran for safety, we came upon a second victim outside the building and quickly extricated him, placing him in our ambulance. We utilized a nearby state trooper as our police escort out of the immediate area so that we could safely assess, treat, and transport the surviving victim.
It was later that night, as the rest of the world slept, that my partner and I talked about the situation we had been in and how it had all fallen apart so rapidly.
“I’m not afraid of dying.”, I told him, “I’m afraid of the in between. Being irreparably injured – stuck in the middle of Life and Death, becoming like many of our regular patients- unable to fully LIVE, yet unable to let it all go and simply die.”
This conversation ultimately led to EMS issued bulletproof vests and an increase in Police response to ensure adequate scene safety prior to EMS arrival. This did little to quiet my fears, yet I continually pushed those thoughts aside and continued in my chosen career path until the summer of 2019.
I’ve always been a bit of a “free spirit”. I don’t think so much of the “consequences” of things or of how they could go terribly wrong, as much as I do the thrill of the experience itself as it is intended when everything goes just right. After so many years of testing fate, choosing to face anything and everything that creates a sense of fear in me, it’s like I developed this sense of invincibility; like nothing bad would ever actually happen to me. So I continued to give zero thought to “the middle” or what it might mean to be stuck there. In my mind, it has become so simple- this or that, black or white, life or death. Recently, I have been forced to realize that it is not always so simple afterall.
One month ago, I crashed my parachute while skydiving. A rookie mistake, I misjudged my landing and stalled the parachute, dropping myself nearly 10 feet to the ground. I fractured my back and shattered my left wrist. I’m actually quite lucky – despite the significance of my injuries, they are able to be healed with surgery, physical therapy, and a hefty dose of time. Simple, right? Far from it. No one ever tells you how painful broken bones can be, even after they are “corrected” with surgery. Or how much you use your back and BOTH of your hands simultaneously to do even the simplest of daily activities – like sitting up, taking a shower, washing your hair, dressing yourself, or cutting up your own food.
I don’t mean to complain. I understand how much worse this actually could have been. In saying that, I don’t even mean death; although leaving my husband a widow and my daughter without access to me would certainly be difficult, becoming a lifelong burden to them is, in my mind, a fate far worse than death.
“You just do things. You don’t stop to consider the dangers of what you do or what it means if and when it goes wrong. I don’t think you realize exactly how bad this could have been. It could have been your legs or your hips…your ability to ever even walk again!”
On the front of the helmet I wear when skydiving is a sticker, “FLY or DIE”, it says, and I was so proud to apply it there. In skydiving, there is nothing more freeing than the feeling of flight and if you die while doing something that you love so much… well, in my mind, what better way is there to go?
Yet, here I am, living proof that it’s not always “this way or that” – and, while I consider myself quite lucky that I am not worse off, I am now faced with the realization that I am, in fact, NOT invincible and things do go wrong, very quickly and very easily.
“That’s no reason to quit,” my heart tells me, “You’ve just gotta get better at it.“
My head argues back: “But it’s not worth the risk to yourself, your family, your friends, your coworkers, or your ability to live a fully functional life unhindered by injury or permanent disability.”
I don’t know where this road to recovery will lead. My future endeavors are as uncertain as the prognosis of my hand/wrist regaining it’s dexterity and range of motion. Or how my back will be able (or unable?) to ever handle running the 26.2 miles in a marathon again?
What I do know is that I am listening. To my husband, who wants to live happily ever after with his chosen wife. To my daughter, who simply wants her mother to be here with her. To my coworkers, as they compensate for my currently injured state and constantly find ways to adapt and overcome. To my friends, who shower me with love, support, and the dark, twisted humor that our past experiences have caused us to appreciate.
You see, I am not afraid to live my life; nor am I afraid to die. It’s “the middle” which scares me most – to be “alive”, yet unable to fully LIVE, is a fate so much worse than death.