Monday, August 30, 2021

When the helpers need helping

It’s been a trying time for first responders in Gasport.


In a matter of days, our local volunteers lost three people with whom they served.


Merle Snell, a founding member of the Hartland fire company who volunteered there for decades, passed on the 21st. Three days later, Linda Drum, who helped with the Ladies Auxiliary at Gasport Chemical Hose where many of her family have been or are firefighters, died in a car accident. Later that day, Judy Spencer, a Hartland volunteer who was consistently a top responder, died in the line of duty while assisting a neighboring fire company.


It’s heartbreaking enough that our local heroes lost their comrades, friends, mentors, and family members. It’s even more heartbreaking to know they responded to the calls for Merle and Linda and, in the case of Judy, were there when it happened. They saw. They felt. They grieved.


My mom is an EMT. One of her fears, one shared by everyone who has ever put a flashing light in their car, is that when she arrives at an accident, fire, or medical event it’s someone she knows.


It’s a real feeling of dread that all volunteers have. Given how small a community like mine is, it’s certain to actually happen in a volunteer’s career.  


But, that can’t prepare them for when that worst nightmare does happen.


Nothing can.


And, even if it is someone unfamiliar, it doesn’t make the anguish any less.


Throughout their volunteerism, they’ve seen people who’ve passed, they’ve tried to help people at their rawest and most vulnerable, and, sometimes, despite their best efforts, they’ve been unable to save a life and are left comforting the injured, holding their hand for their last breath.


Those of us who are helped by the helpers can’t even come close to imagining, to feeling what they’ve experienced.


But, what we can do, is to be there for them following these events.


That has been happening in volume in my community.


You can tell from comments pouring in on social media that those three who were lost meant so much to so many people in Gasport, and beyond; Facebook has been alive with people offering their condolences and memories to the families and the volunteers. The “real world” outside the confines of social media has been equally vibrant, from locals providing food, donations, hugs, and support to neighboring fire districts being on call to cover for the grieving to people far away showing their respects, whether it was a morning run at West Point in Judy’s honor, or a 12 year-old boy in central Florida doing the same.


The support has been powerful and meaningful. I know those families – families by blood or by service – have appreciated it.


What’s been happening here should serve as a model of support for other communities, and all other tragedies. Those who are served should serve the servers. And, it should happen more often than it does now.


First responders experience destruction and death too frequently. It sears into their brain. Many get PTSD, just as a soldier might -- what they’ve seen is best compared to the horror someone would see on the battlefield.  


Following horrific calls, they can get some help from their brotherhood/sisterhood. Their fire halls and county emergency services provide debriefings. Local and state resources are dedicated to getting them the counseling they need.


But, it’s never easy for them to take help.


People, for the most part, feel uncomfortable talking, especially in the open or with complete strangers, about their mental anguish. That’s even more pronounced in fire and EMS circles because volunteers are who they are – they’ve taken it upon themselves to serve others and they believe they shouldn’t show what they perceive to be weakness. They see whole communities counting on them to be strong in the most dire of moments. They don’t want any chinks in their armor.


That’s where we come in, as their trusted friends and family.


Be there to listen.


Be there to provide a shoulder to cry on.


Heck, just be there…in many cases, the power of silence with a companion or the diversion of regular conversation are healing enough.  


Look at it this way: We need to focus on the health of our real heroes as much as we do on the health of assumed heroes. If a player on your favorite football team blows out his knee or tears a shoulder, there’s a lot of handwringing going on – how will our city ever survive? But, when it comes to the heroes who wear a different type of helmet, who are battling an unseen wound, that of trauma witnessed and felt, there’s sometimes not enough attention thrown their way, yet it should be, because, truly, how will our city ever survive?


Know, just as my fellow Gasport residents have shown, that sometimes the helpers need helping.


Be the friend, the confidant, they need to get through their darkest days.  


It’s the least we can do for those who have been and will be there for us when we face our darkest moments.  


From the 30 August 2021 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News


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