JUNE 30, 2010 3:18PM

Firefighting Paramedics, Thank You for Saving My Life.

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Today the Arlington Fire District celebrates its 20th year of Advanced Life Support services. Firemen are crossed trained as paramedics and ambulances are specially equipped to allow for a greater range of time critical and life saving medical procedures. The firemen in Arlington District, Poughkeepsie, NY, are much more then firemen; they are action hero medics.

To commemorate this 20th year, I was invited to speak of my experience, to put a face to the wondeful work these good men and women do. Firefighters, paramedics and the enabling support personnel are our community heroes. Yet, due to HIPA laws and due to the time strangling difficulty of recovering from trauma, these heroes do not get to see all the happy endings they begin. They do not get the applause they deserve. So it was an honor for me to answer this call, an opportunity to try and convey my gratitude as best I could with the limitation of words. I wrote a little speech. It carries a gratitude I know that all rescued survivors feel toward firefighters and paramedics and EMTs everywhere.

So although this is written specifically for the personnel of the Arlington Fire District it is dedicated to all emergency first responders. If you know any, please share this with these special heroes.

This is my Thank You:

In the early hours of March 6 2004 a candle caught the back of my dress and flames engulfed me from ankles to neck.

My husband called the ambulance. Although I did not look good, neither of us realized how badly I'd been burnt. And, unaware that my injury had left me with only a 3% chance for survival, I remained calm and composed.

My husband and I waited inside the front door of our dark home, me sitting on a stool wrapped in only a clean bed sheet. In the space of a few breathes, the emergency response team arrived in our sleeping neighborhood. A tall man in fireman's gear and helmet entered our home alert, focused, attentive, as quiet in movement as he was in speech.

I remember him saying only one thing, asking if I would show him my body. Under the circumstances, I did not mind.

The pivotal aspect of my memory of him though was this: how calm and centered, how attentive and sure he was. I remember very clearly how safe I felt with him. He did nothing to disturb the conviction I had that everything was going to be O.K. He did nothing to ruffle my calm. His name is Gary Lewis.

I emerged from my induced coma 2 months later with missing body parts. The parts I still had were unrecognizable. Unable to move, speak, make a sound, eat, or even breath on my own. But I was calm. And I retained my conviction that everything was going to be OK. When it finally became apparent that my chances of living outweighed my chances of dying, the head of the burn unit confessed that despite his decades in this field he remained intrigued by what it is that allows a small percentage severely burnt patients to survive.

I can tell you that a key ingredient for me was the serenity that allowed me to exercise hope and be pulled forward by faith into a better future. And I deeply thank paramedic Gary for not destroying that place inside me at a time when it would have been so easy to, I deeply thank him for reinforcing it instead.

The head nurse of the burn unit, where I was treated for more then 6 months, later told me that the first responders to an emergency have a huge impact on the final outcome. She told me that the first responders of the Arlington Fire District, and the ER team of St Francis Hospital had done everything right. I appreciate how far from simple that is: it means that I had to have been assessed accurately, that of all the decisions to be made the best ONE had to be acted on based on that assessment, and that action taken had to be carried out in the best possible way. That no mistakes were made in any stage of this process. When left with a 3% chance of survival, there is absolutely no margin for error, anywhere or anyhow. And it has made me acutely aware that every action finitely shapes the possibilities and probabilities in the next frame of outcomes. Paramedic Jim Palmitier, who rode in the ambulance with me, made no mistakes that night.

It is with pleasure I get to stand here today to express deep gratitude to the personnel of the Arlington Fire District and especially those on duty in the early hours of march 6 2004: Captain Bill Steenbergh, Paramedics Gary Lewis and Jim Palmatier and station master George Finn for doing everything right. Thank you for helping to transform my unhappy 3% into a happy 100%.

The struggle to reclaim ones life is so intense and long it is easy to lose track of the people one wants to thank. Privacy laws prevent firefighters from following up so the connection is lost.  My own effort to identify the firefighters who'd rescued me led nowhere and it was not till a chance meeting, years later, at the Arlington street fair that I found out who had saved me. So on behalf of all those people you have rescued, whose lives you have saved, who were unable to find their way back to you, I thank you as well. And applaud the heroes that you are.

Happy 20th birthday, and may you each always be protected from harm as you save others.

The act of expressing gratitude brings me into the blessings of my life. When that gratitude is so well earned by another, it doubles the potency of its gift. It becomes a blessing in itself to let another know that that is what they are. 

personal notes: meeting my heroes.

Just before the end of 2009 I paid a visit to the Arlington Fire Station and introduced myself. This was my first opportunity to express my gratitude to these heroes. This is when I met Captain Bill Steenbergh, a gentle, smiling man whose youthfulness belies the more then 20 years of service to saving lives.

This morning I got to meet Gary Lewis. We hugged. A photograph captured the moment. I sung his praises to his wife, Donna, and their two beautiful daughters. He filled in details that had missed my radar as I went into shock. He spoke of his experiences as a paramedic - I am happy to report my kind of accident is rare. He gave me his rendition of the night he came to my home. His wife, Donna, shared stories of life in the fast lane with her husband, where off-duty rescue scenes abound. 

I look forward to meeting Jim Palmatier, who rode in the ambulance with me and whom I have no memory of, but also owe my life to. I also look forward to meeting George Finn one day.


copyright 2010 Maria Heng


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Amazing Maria. Having worked with firefighters and paramedics for my entire professional life, I can attest to the fact they often - always - come back in and ask about their more serious cases and count on those of us in the ER to be able to give them a good word when possible. You must have a long story to tell about the struggle to return to yourself after this... I'm listening. Hope you will consider writing sometime.
Thank you so much for posting this. I never got to thank the man who rescued me from my car accident, I have no memory of it and he disappeared after getting help. The first words I had to anyone helping me after was, thank you for being here. The serenity was key. I don't think many rescuer workers get to bask in our gratitude.
Thank you very much, Gabby and Oryoki, for reading, commenting and joining in the applause of our community heroes.
Now I am running late for my 4 pm appointment! errrrr
There are so many heroes in this story and remarkable acts of humanity associated with your survival. I'm certain your sharing this with them was deeply meaningful and reminded them of why they chose this/these fields as their life calling. I'm sure no one thinks much about the difficulty and challenges that people in these professions live and deal with. Blessings to all of them. And to you for recovering your life and showing up here to share your talents and inspire with your insight.
It's kind of like I don't have the right adjectives to describe all the things that are awesome about this story . . . thank you for sharing the blessing with us . . . and thank you to those first responders.
Sitting here with chills, good ones, recognizing the best among us--those heros who saved you, and how you also saved yourself because of who you are.
Your story is miraculous, or seems so -- and remains so -- but knowing that real people participated in the miracle and helped it happen makes the story that much better.
What a blessing. Thank you for writing this, Maria. It is an amazing story and a beautiful tribute._r
omg was everyone crying? Because I am, just reading this now. Gratitude beyond words to Gary and those like him for saving you and those like you...
Wow. Glad you overcame all of this surviving and thriving into now. I worked as a unit clerk in a burn unit, and know the unbearable painful recovery process. This is a terrific, strong personal journey piece. I loved it. Bless you, wonderful read! ;) r
Thank you Maria. When I was in the Air Force, the firefighters and EMTs would charge a burning airplane and first get the pilot, and then put out the fire, at great risk to themselves. They are special people. R-
They always say they were just "doing their job" but we know how much more is involved. I am glad they did their job with you. Thanks for this acknowledgement. They are the last people on earth to expect anything like this. They mumble,and shuffle their feet. But they appreciate it. (r)
You are a gift and an example and they, well, nothing short of angels on earth. Thank you for sharing this with all of us. Our traumas are so insignificant when weighed against such a spectrum of incident. I have a friend who is a very dear to me that was a firefighter most of his life and an EMT and also the chief. He is retired now, but behind his kind and stoic demeanor, a heart of a lion exists, with the swiftness of a gazelle and the fortitude of a mountain. Immovable to fear, brave without emotion, a trained kind of samurai saver, against all odds. We can never say enough for those who risk their lives to save us. He was a Marine medic in Viet Nam first. I am glad you have this behind you. I enjoy your writing and comments. R
What a great story. My son has been a volunteer fireman for five years now. They get paid nothing, not even the gas it takes to get them to fire calls and meetings. I can't tell you how many times in the early mornings he has gotten up after working 10 hours of construction to fight fires or use the Jaws of Life to cut people out of cars. They get a $250.00 tax break at the end of the year. These men and women do this to help their fellow man. I, like you, thank them from the bottom of my heart!
Great speech Maria.
I will pass it along to my friends at Mobile Life & Gardiner Fire and Rescue tomorrow. It sounds like you have not given your speech yet. Is this post inviting other providers to attend? If so, what is the date.
This is brave and magnificent prose. Rated.
You survived that much burning, I know something about burn injuries and I can only imagine what it was all like. You said that Gary did not ruin your serenity which was a key to your recovery. Very fascinating.
I learned a very valuable lesson reading this post: The importance of total calm in the face of trauma, and how it impacts the survivor from that moment forward. You description laid it out so clearly and with a compelling description of the atmosphere of "calm" created by these professionals. told beautifully...
I am so glad you are alive and able to tell your story, as well as to thank the awesome people who helped save your life. Incredible experience - blessings and love to you, Maria. ~R
You are grace Maria.

I have told a number of people about you, and passed along your story ever since I read Greg's post, I heart Maria. It so deeply moved me. I don't think I will ever forget your youtube clip.

When you began contributing to Open Salon I was felt as if I "knew" you. Your writing sings Maria.

Your tribute to the first responders is one of the finest expressions of gratitude I've ever read. I was involved with a big event that had many police officers from all over the US and Canada, sometimes there was time to chat. I asked one of my favorite questions: if you had to do it all over again would you be a cop? Most were ambivalent, but one guy told me something I never forgot. He said if he had it to do all over again he'd be a fireman. He was so clear and sure of this I had to ask him, "Why?" "Because, when you're a fireman everyone is always glad to see you, often very glad." State of fact. When the cops show up most of the time people are NOT glad to see you.

Thanks Maria.
Thank you Graham for reading with such an open heart. I do owe my life to many heroes and these angels were the first. It was deeply meaningful for us all to give and receive this acknowledgement and deep gratitude - a wizened retired commissioner stopped me in the car-park to tell me it left tears in his eyes. I was glad. Blessings to all of them.

Thank you so much Owl. The "kind of like..." said it all and I'm flattered and so happy you feel the same way I do about first responders.

Dear Sophieh, I get the feeling you and your partner are responders of the best kind too, longer-term ones. Recognizing the best has a lifting effect, doesn't it?.

Bellwether, I am so thrilled my story is a story of so many - a party!

Thank you so much, Joan.

Absolutely! Smart Mark - you hit the nail on the head - it is very good FOR ME to see the goodness in others.

Dear Nikki, this IS how I feel - a gratitude beyond words. A gratitude for MY life being saved - for being one of the few 3 out of a hundred, and for all the heroes, like Gary and Jim, who made it so. So I know I must reach up in thanks with the energy of this life of mine so graciously spared.
Thank you so much for reading with your refreshing openness and deep feeling.

Thank you so much, Persistent Muse, for gifting me with the witnessing of your informed understanding. It was, indeed, fucking horrific. But I survived even that. And get to share with the lovely likes of you.

Dave, you've personally seen the selfless fearlessness of these heroic people. Awesome, aren't they?

Dirndl Skirt - you pegged it! When I finally found these heroes, after years of sporadic searching, I walked into their station and told then unabashedly what they meant to me, and how and why. I could tell they were trying to figure out how to respond - that they were programmed for "this is just our job", and for being centered in stoic, objective, neutrality. I could feel them wavering on an uncertain point, registering for later inspection when the distance allowed the safety of open retrospection. It was really sweet. They got it, and as far as I was concerned, could dive into it whenever it suited them to. I love them.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, dear and generous Sheila. But I must clarify - no trauma is insignificant. All pain requests our full attention, and regardless of how it measures against anyone else's. At the same time I will share that it was a powerfully liberating tool to measure my own suffering against the greater suffering of someone else and, in doing so, have my own lightened by its comparative insignificance. In this I recognize your wisdom - knowing it worked for me. You describe these heroes so well - will you share this post with him? Give him irrefutable evidence of his impact?

Dear Scanner! Please let your son know my story. It is one of many. Many that are the result of HIM.

Thank you Yalebno, for passing this along to other heroes, on behalf of the voices that do not get heard. The event was this glorious morning, now over. And I am the richer for it.

Thank you Jonathan.

Dr. Spudman 44, thank you for coming by - i look forward to learning more of you. So far, my experience has reinforced the teaching that the mind is the beginning of reality. There have been no exceptions, although this is certainly worth greater refection. But in the case of my recovery, with circumstances weighing heavily in favor of death, and my awareness of coming to death, and my conscious and unyielding willing to life, it was my state of mind that was an essential player in the outcome. I cannot prove this but can only provide compelling anecdote. But who would want to engage in such an experiment willingly? One day I will tell the fuller story of this.

And Gary, your observation continues the comment made to Dr Spudman - calm creates open space like a canvas ready for the creative brush strokes of the artist that owns it. It makes room for possibility...

FusanA, thank you so much. And blessings to you too.

Oh, Ablonde, what an awesome comment to receive. I love and respect that feeling of "knowing" someone, of connection. So we are. And yes, your questions are perceptive and arrived at a very true point - firefighters are saviors, God willing. no and, ifs, or buts. Thank you very much.
Maria, so beautifully and wonderfully expressed. I especially like your last paragraph, which I am reading over. These days complaints are far more common than compliments, and I am sure that your expression of gratitude was cherished by the fire department.
Thank you very much, Linda. Please know that this last paragraph applies equally to you. Your work is of the noblest order. Every minute of it. And, I believe, when you do it motivated by the personal motivation of doing what is right and knowing what is right is driven by caring, it is the alchemy that transforms the soul that lifts us all up. So thank YOU, for what you do, in whatever variation of goodness that you do it.
I am seriously grateful also to the firefighting/paramedics who saved your life!
(R)ated because I finally know what happened to Gary Lewis after he left "The Playboys" (God, I'm old!)
Thank you very much, Fred. I doubt the Gary Lewis who saved me is the Gary Lewis you have in mind - son of Jerry Lewis born approx 1945? The hero who save me is prob born in the 60s.
Wow. This is wonderfully written. The writing reflects the amazing grace you have. I'm not sure you know you have it. It also make me want to hug a firefighter. Thank you.
With every post you show more of your experience, and your great heart.

This is so perfect for starting the Independence Day weekend, reminding us we live by the grace of others. That human are a collective, social beings who rely on others' expertise and generosity and calm ability. And how these expectations are met, each for the other, because a space has been cleared here and a few other places. Freedoms won, and liberty assured.

You are a gifted writer, a natural Voice, Maria, and i look forward to you inscribing your book for me someday. Or not. As Kate reminds me, some writing just is, and the determinant for good writing is not bound covers but the unbound spirit.

Yours? Soars. Here's to the 3%, and to the great effort and worthy lives of the 97%.
I am aware of the amazing grace in my life - it is not me or mine but the gift that visits and affords the marriage between will and circumstance. Isn't this what grace means? I am so grateful for it. There are many times all I can do is forgive myself for failing, and position myself in readiness. And know that it is completely normal to start from not knowing, from complete awkwardness.
That reading this makes you want to hug a firefighter is proff to me I did my work well here. Thank you so much Molly.

Greg, with the second I have it will not be possible to thank you enough or justly for the honor of your generous comment. But I trust you know how grateful I am. And how much I enjoy your poetic prose, even here the gem of "the determinant for good writing is not bound covers but the unbound spirit.". Wow. love to you.
This is a powerful story, Maria. I'm sharing; thank you.
Maria, each time I read your work I am moved by your grace. And meeting you was a privilege.
Maria, I'm sorry I hadn't gotten around to reading this yet. Your story is an amazing one, and the work of the first responders and the hospital staff must have also been amazing. You would hope that after 9/11, nobody would take firefighters' work for granted, but we still sometimes do. Last week, there was a massive fire in White Plains, destroying half a city block that contained two popular restaurants. These men and women rushed onto the scene, wearing their heavy outfits in 90-degree heat, extinguishing the fire despite smoke inhalation and preventing injuries despite the bustling midday hour. Your direct words express proper appreciation for the work they continue to do at great personal risk.
Amanda Gm thank you for sharing this with ohers.

Dear Lea, the feeling is mutual. Thank you so much.

Thank you reading, Jane. I'm really glad I got to thank them too.

Cranky, I'm thrilled you visited and I thank you for sharing the White Plains fire event - I hope there were no injuries. Through such devastation these firefighters reveal their heroism - which you now remind me of. I shake my head in awe.
Maria, I only just found this post. I am often amazed at the power of patients to tap into or maintain the equilibrium that allows them to survive something that might seem impossible. Your visit to the station to thank those first responders -- it is a grace. I assure you it will stay with them forever.
Thank you for thanking those who put their own lives on the line for others. My daughter is a paramedic. She loves, loves, loves her work. I do not know how she keeps her sanity though. She is my hero. The skills and courage it takes to make snap life or death decisions, in ice, heat, rain, fire, whatever, amazes me every day of my life. Best wishes to you.
I've just found this. I'm speechless.

I suffered a horrendous motorcycle accident 15 years ago, and have no memory of anyone who took care of my limp and twisted body when it was over. I only remember the experience of dying, as a result, and coming back, and how it set me off on a path of healing and spiritual inquiry.

I'm feeling a little embarrassed now that I didn't even think of expressing my appreciation to the emergency personnel who took such good care of me.

This is beautiful.
The words that repeated in my mind as I read your powerful story of severe trauma was "grace," "an act of grace," "the presence of grace."