Fire/Rescue StreetSense ❘ By Kate Dernocoeur
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a remote control for life that would allow us to fast-forward through the hard parts? Our line of work demands us to address hard stuff all the time. Whether it’s a brush fire that refuses to stop spreading, an entrenched depression, or failure to connect well with someone you’re trying to help, half the battle is recognizing when it’s time to try a different tactic. This is because there really is no other choice: It isn’t possible to “fast-forward” through such times. That’s why they are hard!
Unlike the hard things we more typically do that have a known endpoint, COVID-19 is cursedly different. With no reliable finish line (whatever that ends up looking like) or timeline for recovering routines and fun that were interrupted when the pandemic came along, there is the additional gloom of feeling precious little control over the future.
Although it may be tempting to wish it all away (or use that metaphorical fast-forward button), coming to view adversity as the teacher it is may be a more helpful approach than denying or ignoring it. How is this done? Here are three helpful elements: resilience, patience, and tolerance.
Resilience is a prime ingredient for times such as these. As Eric Greitens said in his excellent book, Resilience, “Resilience is the virtue that enables people to move through hardship and become better.” The word means knowing ways to cope with adversity and recover from difficulty. It implies a certain toughness, an inner grit. Some like to think of it as “bouncing” back.
Everyone has a personal degree of inherent resilience, especially those in the world of emergency service. We each have our own collections of traits and practices (some more effective than others) for overcoming setbacks and challenges. No matter where your starting point is, resilience can be built and reinforced. Strengthen yours by doing the following:
- Educate yourself about the things that tear you down or apart. One way to access these less savory areas of your inner world is to acknowledge what pushes your hot buttons. Culprits can be physical, emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual. Some stem from deep-seated beliefs and childhood experiences, especially when some of those were adverse. What affects one person can be very different from the next, so this is a very personal assessment.
- Take stock of how you typically respond to such events. Say you’ve just witnessed a brutal act against a citizen by a colleague, or your partner just got spit on in the face, or you just pulled a drowned child from the water dead. Do you retreat? Fight? Get loud, or go inside yourself? Seek community, or try to “tough” it out? You might respond differently to different situations, and the ways you respond over time can tend to change as well. What is your inner and outer life like in the immediate aftermath, in an hour, a day, a week? Are you proud of your actions? Do they support a worthy moral compass?
- Take ongoing and consistent measures to safeguard your own self-preservation. There are abundant resources to guide you toward healthy ways to proceed; seek them and use them. Don’t just give this part lip service, either. Do the hard work of building up your resilience. Frame it in ways that give you freedom from unresolved wounds.
A patient person doesn’t get angry or upset when the chips are down. Those embarking on being more resilient need patience to endure the stumbling, sometimes-inept efforts of self-improvement, even when they are earnest and well-intended. Trying a new approach only briefly and then declaring failed efforts to be a waste misses the point. As the saying goes, “Fall down nine times, get up ten.” No one gets everything right, especially not on the first try. Another obvious (and very accessible) place to practice patience is when dealing with colleagues and members of the public who need it.
Be tolerant, too, with colleagues (except when their behavior threatens anyone’s well-being—then speak up, for heaven’s sake!). Everyone fails now and then. But if building a wider culture of resilience for coping with hard things in your emergency service is the goal, the best results come person by person, one for all, all for one. Look around your brotherhood. Who is that person with the knack for finding the way forward that doesn’t drag everyone else down? It’s like groping your way through a smoke-filled place: It helps to have someone with the right skills in the lead. But even in a leadership vacuum, doing the hard things we do tends to go better when team members are tolerant of one another when efforts to cope begin to fray.
I had a cousin who once fast-forwarded through the hard parts of movies for his little boy. Even then, I privately questioned the long-term impact on the child’s resilience. It seems better to gradually introduce to our children ways to deal with hard things. But even when you or those around you have somehow missed such opportunities, there is always time to bolster the skills of resilience, patience, and tolerance. It is never too late.
The world of emergency care doesn’t pull its punches on the people wearing the patches and gear—us. There are, and always will be, hard times. The more important point is, will you let those experiences eat you up, or will you embrace them? It is from enduring them mindfully that you can earn the usable take-home life lessons they offer. That term “bouncing back”? It’s a lie. No one ever bounces all the way back from hard times. But you can rise again. You can get back to the top of your (new) game with the lessons offered from challenging experiences. That’s the goal.
KATE DERNOCOEUR, retired firefighter/NREMT, still serves as a medical examiner investigator as well as a SARTECH-II with Kent County’s SAR K9 unit in western Michigan. She retired from the Ada (MI) Fire Department in 2019 and was a paramedic for the Denver (CO) Paramedic Division (1979-1986). Her emergency services career began in 1974 with the Vail (CO) Mountain Rescue Group. Educated as a journalist who also earned an MFA in creative writing, she has written extensively for EMS publications, including JEMS, since 1979, and was a frequent speaker at EMS conferences from 1984-2004. Her book, Streetsense: Communication, Safety and Control was released in its 4th edition in 2020. She also coauthored Principles of Emergency Medical Dispatch with Dr. Jeff Clawson, MD (first edition, 1988), among other books. Her blog, “Generally Write,” is at www.katedernocoeur.com.