Nicky Hemingson is a current active Firefighter with the County of Grande Prairie and this is her story.
Growing up in a family of “helpers”, some in emergency services, it seemed it was only a matter of time before I became a First Responder myself. When I was very young I spent a lot of my visitation weekends with my Dad in an ambulance doing medical coverage at events or putting slings on my dolls as he taught first aid courses. The people he worked with were my “Aunts and Uncles” and I always dreamt of the day I would get to put on a uniform. At 7 years old my favorite show was “Rescue 911” and I could basically teach CPR or the learn not to burn program.
Fast forward 20 years or so and I met a great lady who was a 911 dispatcher. She commented that “they needed good people like me” and encouraged me to submit my resume. I took her advice and for the next hiring I was contacted for an interview. During my sit along, I knew instantly that I was MEANT for this. I was hired. Our PSAP also dispatched 60+ Fire Departments. I was busy. I was in my glory. I had found my calling.
I was the girl who was there 30 minutes early for my shift. I studied on my days off. I volunteered for every committee. I was by the book, hardcore, and old school. I LOVED that job, I loved helping people. Mentally, I held up well (or so I thought). I was dealing with things as they came and always felt that the calls I took would never affect me “that bad” because after all, I wasn’t on the scene. Imagine what our crews were seeing, I was lucky- I only heard it.
But eventually, the tough ones stacked up. You never forget the sound of Agonal breathing, the desperation in a mother’s voice as she tries to wake her unresponsive baby, the sound of a working fire, or the feeling when the phone goes dead after a suicidal caller says “They’re done”. I tried not to talk to my husband about the calls because I didn’t want him to experience it, too. I would be exhausted and burnt out after a long stretch of (usually night) shifts and he would say, “Why do you go back if this is what it does to you?” That was when I felt like it was my career- which I loved and felt I was very good at, vs. the rest of my life. No one understood why I did it. Why I would “put myself through that”. I felt alone. Different. It was them and me. We were not the same. I became a witness to my family’s life and a bystander to my own. They didn’t care when I left anymore. It didn’t matter much to them if I was working or not because they would carry on with what had become “normal”. The only place I felt I fit was behind a console, headset ready, game face on. Dealing with other people’s emergencies. Numb because it was no place for emotions. “Happy”.
Inevitably, the right combination of calls caused the “walls” to come tumbling down. It was a slow, gradual decay that left me feeling lost. I knew I had to leave my job. But I also felt like the only thing giving me or my life any purpose…was that job. I WAS that uniform. Then the guilt set in; How could I not view my job as a mother as a worthy purpose? My job as a wife, a sister, daughter. How could I have everything so screwed up that my job was actually number one? Most people don’t understand this feeling. Most people who work in emergency services do.
I started sitting in my car when I arrived at the station waiting until the last possible minute to go in. I quit volunteering for anything extra. I resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t be a part of the “family” that I was looking for at my department (since I was missing out on it at home already). I would answer every call hoping and praying it would be a transfer. I was having nightmares where the people from past calls were my children so I slept little. I replayed calls in my head and listened to recordings at work, trying to figure out what I could have done better. I was constantly fighting my mind, trying to keep the “ten thousand ways we could all die” scenarios quiet. I quizzed my kids constantly while we were driving because of the calls I had dispatched where the caller did not know where they were. “Which highway are we on, what road did we just pass”. Compassion fatigue- oh, man the compassion fatigue. I lost all faith in humanity because of the things I heard people do to each other. I needed out, but all I wanted was to be “in”. “Normal people’s” conversations drove me crazy and when they would talk about how bad their day was, I would think “At least you didn’t have to listen to someone burn to death.”
I decided as I left my house to go to work for the 3rd Christmas Eve in a row, I was done. I had to be done. I cried all the way to work. I made myself stay until the anniversary of my hiring. Just to be sure. Likely so that I had some time to prepare and adjust. July came and I submitted my resignation via email to multiple superiors. I got no reply. That leaves a mark. I really was as replaceable as we all joked. When I arrived at my next shift my coworker jokingly called me a “quitter” (I guess my email was received). It was like a bullet through my soul. I lost it. It took all I had to finish than 12 hours. I worked one shift after that and then gave the rest away. I couldn’t be there. There wasn’t a goodbye, no coffee, and cake. From where I stood it was a “Good Riddance,… Quitter” as the door closed behind me. Driving home from that shift the thought crossed my mind as I met a big truck on the highway- I could just swerve a little to the left.
„You can’t patch a wounded soul with a Band-Aid.“
This was when a new chapter started for me. If it were a “Friends” episode, it would be called “The One Without the Uniform”. I literally had to re-learn who. I. was. I mourned as you mourn for a person who has died. Looking back now, probably because a part of me died. I basically had to reintegrate myself back into my own life. Do you want to talk about awkward? I felt left behind, forgotten, useless. Tough things to work through. Thankfully I have great kids, great friends, and an amazing husband. I also have a few four-legged friends that have had more of my tears soaked into their fur than any human shoulder. They have all kept me sane. Literally. Mostly.
Fast forward once again through time and hard, hard work and here we are- I am a Firefighter and MFR. I still work in a call center but don’t deal with as many emergency calls. I feel that my “mental game” is as solid as ever, not because it is so strong- but because I know when, and what to do when it’s not. I work constantly on building my resilience and coping skills. I find being on the scene and being able to be “hands-on” much easier than being behind a headset, less opportunity to make things up in my head, and satisfying to feel confident that I was able to help. I guess I’d say I’m still hardcore and old school. 😀 I have taken an interest in other First Responder’s mental health as well and am proud to say I was accepted as a member of my department’s Peer Support Team and am excited about some new ventures on the horizon as well.
I am currently training my second Crisis Response Dog. Of course, we have all heard how interacting with animals boost levels of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin in our brains, and can even improve our immune system. The Dalmatian puppy I have was chosen carefully and has been training since the day he came home at 8 weeks. Casey was named after a local Firefighter who took his own life after battling with mental health. He will be a therapy dog specifically for First Responders. We are working hard to be ready for his official testing once things open up again. My hope is that Casey will not only help spread the word to break down the stigma surrounding mental health in the emergency services world (who doesn’t notice a Dalmatian at a fire hall?), but I hope to inspire resilience and recovery and provide some respite for our fellow First Responders and remind them that they are only human.
It’s not all sunshine and roses, but I’m working on it. The more I learn about the clinical side of mental health, the more I understand why I am the way I am (and why some people are the way they are). I’m not a bad person, I’ve just been through some bad shit. My motto these days is “Go through shit, Grow through shit.” It reminds me that we have to actually go through things to grow. I am a perpetual learner so this fits for me. Avoidance might feel better but it doesn’t do me any favors.
It’s still tough to share my story… I still struggle with if my trauma even “qualifies”. Like most First Responders, I am a helper and I want to help other people… I’m learning to help myself and that I can help others more effectively if I take care of myself first.
I look forward to working together with other First Responders to make our family a safer place.