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For Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps

There are times when there is nothing so fine as being an EMT. Delivering a baby, seeing a heart rhythm change from the ugly death scrawl of ventricular fibrillation to a perfusing rhythm, feeling your patient take a breath through the bag-mask that was only moments before providing the life-sustaining oxygen that the patient could not…

… those are the moments we live for.

We don't even need to see the child grow up, or see the patient we saved celebrate a second shot at life with his family. Thanks are nice, but not necessary. Birthday party invitations are more Rescue 911 than real life, anyway, and our imaginations are quite good enough to fill in the blanks.

We know what we did. We know what it meant. And we know that not just anyone could do it. Sure, luck and timing play a large role, and CPR can be learned by laypeople, but to do what we do, day in and day out… it takes someone special.

It takes an EMT.

And when you are an EMT, there are also days that try your patience, and your anger management, and your understanding, and your love for your fellow man, and your physical stamina. Those days always outnumber the good ones. That's why it takes stern stuff to make an EMT. Martin Luther King said it best:

"We must combine the toughness of the serpent with the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart."

It is a rare and wonderful thing to find those qualities in equal measure within the same person, but somehow EMT's manage to pull it off.

And then there are days like Friday, when nothing can prepare you for the horror you faced, and no amount of code saves, or babies birthed, or little old ladies comforted, no amount of joy your career as an EMT has brought you before or since, can erase the scar it leaves on your soul. You only triaged three from Sandy Hook School as red. All the rest were blacks. Only one you transported lived beyond the Emergency Department. And given that you're a small volunteer department, odds are you knew many of the children killed.

People who do not work in EMS do not understand triage. Sure, they may grasp the concept of it; sickest transported first, stable patients transported next to last, dead patients transported last of all. They may even know what the colors red, yellow, black and green signify.

But what they can never know is the pain in making the decision, the awful, horrible knowledge that some of the patients you triage as black… still have signs of life. And they will never know the doubt that creeps at the edge of your mind, never know the torture you will feel as you ask yourself in the days, months and years to come if your decision was the right one.

They'll never know how often you played "If only…" in the dead of the night as your wife or husband held you and brushed the tears away. They'll never know how hard it is to face the parents of the dead children, parents you know, parents you work and go to church with, and wonder if you could not have done more. And when they thank you and tell you how grateful they are for everything you did, it only twists the knife.

If only we'd gotten there sooner…

If only there had been more of us…

I'm just a volunteer EMT. If only I had been a paramedic, that innocent child I triaged as a black might have been a red…

If only I had been more skilled, maybe one of them would be alive to celebrate Christmas. At least one family would have some joy this season…

And nothing I can say or do will spare you those thoughts.

Days like Friday will shake the faith of the most devout, make you question the existence of a merciful and loving God. And those who do not believe will take it as further proof that there is none, but their faith in the goodness of their fellow man will be shaken just the same.

Days like Friday will cause despair to gnaw at your soul, casting doubt on every decision you make. Do you really make a difference? Does anything you did really matter? I'm a volunteer, this isn't even my real job. Why do I keep doing this? Am I ever going to feel whole again? God, I must be a selfish bastard, my kid wasn't even killed and I'm still a wreck…

And you know, plenty of people in our own profession have belittled you in the past. You're volunteers. You're poorly trained. You aren't even real professionals, you're just… EMS hobbyists.

But most of us don't feel that way. Some of us know what you're going through, and we ache for you, powerless to take away your pain.

And you know how maddening, and discouraging it is for an EMT to feel powerless to do something.

And many of us, myself included, don't know what you're going through, and we pray that we never know.

But we feel your pain nonetheless, and if knowing that millions of other EMT's pray for your peace and comfort tonight… well, you know. We are.

At times like this, pundits will opine and politicians will dance in the blood of the innocent to advance their political agendas, and most of them  – on both sides – will be wrong. People will debate the superficial and simplistic reasons and the unworkable and politically expedient solutions fiercely on Facebook and social media and television and print and radio. I am ashamed to say, I have engaged in it myself. Too easily forgotten in the fighting are the names of the fallen. Too easily forgotten are your names, and what you did.

This EMT will not forget. This EMT will not mention – ever – the name of the shooter, but I will remember you, Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps.

I may not know any of you. I've lectured in Connecticut enough times, and to enough volunteers, that there's a good chance I've met at least some of you. Earlier this year, I was privileged to attend the wedding of a Connecticut state trooper and former paramedic. I watched the camaraderie and brotherhood shared by he and his fellow troopers at the reception. Those guys love each other.

And in the past two days, that young man and several of his compatriots have been at Sandy Hook, identifying bodies, comforting parents, protecting and serving the citizens of Newtown. Their nightmares are just beginning, too.

And I pray for their peace and comfort as well.

It is too trite and easy to chalk this up to the actions of one evil man. Evil is too convenient a label, and to do so tars other innocent children with autism spectrum disorder with the same hateful brush. They're going to suffer from this as well. The mentally ill are already stigmatized in this country, and Friday will only make it worse. Evil is an easy label for a complex problem.

If you want to label something as evil, label the system – or lack of one –  that allowed this young man to implode. We have no organized framework to speak of for treating them. It's part of the same fragmented, pushed-to-the-brink-of-collapse system you see every day, every time you transport someone with a minor ailment that could be treated at home, every time you drop off a patient at an ED packed to the gills with people who are healthier than you are.

And it is natural, especially after a day like Friday, to ask yourself what can make a difference. It is natural to believe that despair always wins in the end, that entropy is the natural order of the universe. But there is one thing that will always expose that thought for the lie it is:

YOU.

You win just by showing up.

It matters not what skills you employed, or what resources you did or didn't have, or what you might do differently next time, given the harsh lessons of Friday.

You win just by showing up.

Every time you get on the ambulance, every time the tones go out and you leave your dinner and your loved ones, we win a little victory against entropy.

Every bandage you place, every hand you hold, every medication you administer – even when you know it is probably too late –  you beat back the darkness a little more.

And yes, even when you place that black tag, you win. It doesn't feel like it now, but imagine the pain of being a parent of one of the children killed… and no one showed up to help.

You win just by showing up.

Friday, you showed twenty-six families that for every madman who lashes out in a wanton act of destruction, there are twenty more people who will show up to pick up the pieces.

For every man bent on doing violence, twenty more show up, bringing kindness and acts of mercy.

For every calculated act of hatred, you counter with a dozen simple acts of love and selflessness that are as natural to you as breathing. You don't even think about them, you do them so often.

Sure, you're goofy-looking angels with your turnout gear and rumpled uniforms and bed hair, but only to people who don't look close enough to see your wings. And the people who need you most never care what you look like.

Because you brought hope just by showing up.

So in the days to come, know that millions of EMT's around the country are proud of you, just for showing up. Monday morning quarterbacks will eventually dissect your response and point out all the things they think you did wrong, judging you with the benefit of hindsight. They'll have months to second-guess the decisions you had seconds or minutes to make.

Don't let them bother you. Learn what lessons you can from this, pass what lessons you've learned onto others, and above all, look out for each other just like you look out for the citizens of Newtown. Spread those acts of kindness and understanding and mercy among your fellow squad members, because even the healers need help from time to time.

I'm just a simple medic who writes a blog. I have no answers, no profound truths to share. I have no money to donate. But I do understand brotherhood, and I am proud you are part of mine. Before I close, I'd like to share with you a poem that has brough strength and solace to men far greater and more eloquent than I. May it do the same for you, and your fellow responders from surrounding towns, and the men and women of the Connecticut State Police, and most especially the parents and families of the slain:
 

**********

Invictus

 

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

 

God bless you all, and may you keep showing up.

 

 

 

 

 

Comments - Add Yours

  • mpatk

    Thank you for putting into words everything that the rest of us wish we were eloquent enough to say. Hopes and prayers that the first responders at Newtown get the help they’ll need in the weeks and months ahead.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kimwilliams70 Kimberly Denise Williams

    Well said.

  • Asgibbs

    Thank you Kelly, for finding the words that others couldn’t

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1098939160 Mary Ann Melville

    Stunningly beautiful, Kelly Grayson. With love and eloquence, and a fair amount of bluntness, you have told the truth. If you’re an EMT at any level and cannot identify with the story Kelly tells, you have taken a wrong turn. Thank you, Kelly, for keeping the light on the path that these selfless responders walk.

  • Jenn Sikora

    Beautifully written, thank you for finding a way to put this into words. I sincerely hope the EMT’s and the other first responders see this & that they receive the help & support they are going to need in the upcoming days/weeks/months/years.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=709004537 Edd Flammer

    Once again the ambulance driver found a way to say what a lot of us couldn’t find the words for. I have been both a volley in a smallish town, and a paid professional in the big city, and in both i have thanked my lucky stars that I have had to deal with what you fine folks in Newtown have faced.

    I have seen both the best and the worst that humanity has to offer, and I can imagine only way too clearly what you guys got out of bed and faced. I know that you will be haunted for a long time with a memory of the words that followed those tones.

    Just know there are alot of us out here that are almost understand what you feel..

  • http://www.facebook.com/bobbi.moe1 Bobbi Lea Moe

    Kelly Grayson, there isn’t very much more that I can say but ‘Thank you’. You put into words what I have been feeling for days. I hope that this message reaches those that need it. I responded to a school shooting in 2006 and these are words I wish I had heard/read six years ago. There is far more I could say now that I think of it, but I will spare you all my rambling. Thank you once again for your beautiful message.

  • NJ EMT/Police Officer

    Perfectly said. Thank you and I will share.

  • MSgt B

    Epic, Kelly.
    Thank you.

  • Fire-Medic’s wife

    Thank you so much for this wonderful piece. I know that one person has found solace from this. I am married to a paramedic who served in Newtown until we moved. He has played the “what if game” since we heard about the tragedy… what if we still lived there, it would’ve been his shift. The truth is the outcome sadly would’ve been the same. My heart goes out to the EMTs, and members of Sandy Hook fire, as they just endured the worst day of their EMS career.

  • Morris

    Thank you for your words and the job that you do.

  • Donna

    Thank you Kelly for saying what I was thinking from the first moment I heard of all this…..I cannot imagine being there having to make ANY decision, much less those kinds of decisions…..and at this point I think I’d be in the corner, curled into a ball sucking my thumb, never to return.

  • Pat

    I cannot even begin to imagine what being there was like, I don’t think I want to. My gratitude to all of you. You also have my prayers that God gives you healing.

  • Jeff Matson

    Thank you Kelley for putting words to feelings we have in EMS.

  • Old_NFO

    Well said, and agreed.

  • http://www.firegeezer.com/ Mike “FossilMedic” Ward

    Respect

  • http://www.facebook.com/flx5568 Michael Palumbo

    This are Amazing Words you have posted. Please know a brother EMT from NY is praying for you as well for what you have seen and have to mentally deal with. Be safe out there.

  • http://www.facebook.com/denise.williams.1291 Denise Williams

    Thank you… for ALL you do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/don.gwinn Don Gwinn

    Good words, Kelly. I recently made the decision to leave volunteer EMS, and I can tell you, at times like these I have just as many doubts about that decision as these people will have about theirs. Triage in a mass event is one of those things you always wonder if you could really do (at least, I did.) But do we spend enough time thinking about the fact that all evidence shows that trained people will carry out triage correctly . . . but then have to live with it afterwards?

  • http://www.facebook.com/eithneingenfaelain Laura Schappert

    Thank you, Mr Grayson. This post brought tears to my eyes. My prayers are with the crews of Newtown.

  • mr618

    Thanks, Kelly, from one who used to be in CT EMS in that area. BTW, the Public Info Officer for CSP was one of my medical training officers at the police academy; he was the one who told us that when a call goes out for a child in trouble, ‘everyone goes… the whole world goes.’ He must be heartbroken at the carnage. And did you see the various pix of troopers wiping away their tears? For a culture that actively denies emotions in public, those were chilling pictures… the terror broke through their shells and released the humans within.
    And I agree with your vow to never mention the cretin’s name. So many of the killers want nothing more than fame, and by not mentioning their names, we are denying them, in their final hour, what they so desperately wanted… what they killed innocents for. Good for you.

    • Ambulance_Driver

      I’ve deliberately refrained from viewing any of the photos. I know a couple of those troopers.

  • slnic

    “If you want to label something as evil, label the system – or lack of one – that allowed this young man to implode. We have no organized framework to speak of for treating them.”

    Exactly.

  • medstarinc

    Wonderful message to share with those who are not necessarily EMS workers.

  • http://twitter.com/podmedic Jamie Davis

    Well said, Kelly. Thanks for posting this.

  • http://www.romduckworth.com/ Rommie Duckworth

    Well said sir. And much appreciated.

  • Darle J. Dawson

    My gosh, this is the finest writing on so many complex subjects – thank you for putting it all together so beautifully and clearly. I have shared your post with a dear, life-long friend, an EMT trainer of many years; her husband is also a First Responder. I am certain it will speak to them both, as much, if not more, than it did me. Thank you for this post, and for your selfless service to so many.

  • http://www.facebook.com/elisa.h.casey Elisa Hanson Casey

    AD- this is one of the finest posts I have read from you. People ask where God was in this whole tragedy– He was there in the form of the emergency personnel who went in to save anyone they could… the teachers and staff who protected their kids… the library clerk who herded her kids into a closet, told them that their job was to stay quiet, and helped keep them calm. God bless.

  • disqus_5jumQ9Cv2Y

    You are Brave. You did what you could. Pleas see that you all ge.t stress debriefmentgod bless you all
    Without Brothers and Sister like you what would we do. ?

  • http://www.facebook.com/bob.sullivan.7311 Bob Sullivan

    Thanks Kelly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeff.weller.96 Jeff Weller

    Here here…..no truer words…..

  • mike

    Beautifully said, Kelly.

  • Rosalie

    What an AMAZING way to put it! Thank you for saying so well what many of us were feeling! Prayers go out to the ALL of the responders as well as the families!

  • Mike_Schlechter

    Beautifully written and a wonderful sentiment. Thank you. I am a volunteer EMT, and training officer one town to the south of Newtown. I’ve had triage, and the nature of what must that must have been like, rattling in my head and breaking my heart. You gave me great solace. Thank you.

  • Tonya

    Thank you for the words you gave. They were directed to those from Newtown, CT, but they touch us all in some way. Bless all who “show up” daily either as volunteers or paid.

  • St. Charles Ambulance MN

    This is one of the most wonderful pieces I have read in a long time! Thank you your words – it makes all of us in EMS proud of what we do, no matter how diffcult. To the Newtown Ambulance crew, remember how large your family really is…Godspeed…

  • emtandproud

    Thank you for this wonderful piece. Ohio EMS shares our condolences for the Newtown EMS…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=569915242 Jennifer Clark Markley

    As an ER nurse and a paramedic, I wanted to convey my deepest sympathies for the unspeakable tragedy that found your town. Words will never heal your pain, but know that everything and ANYTHING you did that day made a difference in someone’s life- no matter how small. You may not have been able to save a life, but I’m sure it made the parents feel somewhat better knowing you may have tried. Just being there was in some small way, a comfort. We are good at taking care of others, but not good at taking care of ourselves. You are traumatized, and need time to heal. Please let others help you through this horrible time. It is only then, that you can continue to make a difference- no matter how small.

  • http://www.facebook.com/danny.moran.948 Danny Moran

    thank you for this its awsome and right on point ,im thinking and praying for all the responders insandy hook. god bless you all

  • just a paramedic

    Thank you! I’ve been praying for all the responders since this tragic day. I pray they receive all the support they are sure to need.

  • Too Old To Work

    Finally. A post about the Newtown murders that is worth reading. One driven only by the author’s compassion not just for the victims, but for the people who had to respond and now have to deal with the aftermath.

    I’m proud to call you my friend and humbled by your post.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jennifer-Reed-Mitch/1542200064 Jennifer Reed Mitch

    Damn it, Kelly! You did it again. Such a great article. One that made me cry like a newborn.

  • http://www.facebook.com/laura.fowler.754918 Laura Fowler

    Great words and know there are many of us who respect that you are volunteers and what that takes. Thank you for showing up

  • rebecca brown

    as a mother, emt and wife of a fire fighter our hearts have ached for you, i pray you find peace swiftly – God bless you all.

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  • w

    way to pat yourself on the back.

    • Ambulance_Driver

      And what exactly is that supposed to mean?

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  • crs224akameema

    As ever, you voiced what so many of us have thought, and beautifully so. We all have the calls we can’t forget; to have one like this is unimaginable, and yet we all could have it. If so, we can hope that words like yours are there to help heal.

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  • Dan Farrow

    Thank you

  • Anonymous

    You are so right about the doubt and sleepless crying nights. I know what they are feeling, it never goes away. Soon the numbness and shock will be gone. My nightmare was April 16, 2007, somedays it feels like yesterday. Just remember no matter what, you did your best and you are heros in our eyes even if you don’t feel that way

  • Kenneth Lerman

    Thank you. My wife Laura frequently recites Invictus. Your post was forwarded by our assistant chief.
    Ken – A sad but proud member of Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps.

  • Joe Medix

    Wow great post. Although i cringe everytime I hear Invictus, unfortuntaly these were the last words of Tim McVeigh. He robbed me of any enjoyment of those words.

  • http://www.facebook.com/meridith.richards Meridith Richards

    WOW, AD. That was beautiful. So well spoken. Thank you.

  • emtdeb

    You win by showing up…such a simple statement but speaks volumes to us all. Praying for everyone!!

  • Rusty

    Here here. I am a combat medic and civilian paramedic of 20 yrs. God bless all of you now and always. You make a diference!!!! you have to me and so many others beyond your field of battle that day. You inspire and help us all to carry on.

  • http://twitter.com/JohnRShirley John Shirley

    Damn. Thanks for speaking for them.

    “bloody, but unbowed”.

    John

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  • Kimberly

    Beautifully said. Prayers to all of the first responders at Newtown.