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