by Bobby Bush
In October 2010, I entered into the category of firefighters with career-ending injuries. However, mine was less dramatic. Yet, this trivial injury was the first in a series of events that led to my decision to take my own life.
Whenever I hear about a firefighter receiving a career-ending injury, I immediately wonder how that injury occurred. Did they fall in a floor-collapse during a fire? Were they caught in a flashover? Did a bailout go wrong? Were they in an apparatus crash? These kinds of incidents were what I read about daily in “The Secret List” emails from Chief Billy Goldfeder and his distinguished crew. I cannot help but expect these Brothers and Sisters were injured saving lives. After all, that is what we do.
In October 2010, I entered into the category of firefighters with career-ending injuries. However, mine was less dramatic. I received a hernia after carrying a stretcher for the rescue crew.
The worst part about the incident was that it was a sick call, an embarrassing explanation as to why I no longer do the job I loved. After all, look at the serious life-changing trauma, mentally and physically, that happens daily to public safety workers from all fields. How can such a trivial problem be such a big deal when firefighters who were at the Twin Towers are still with the FDNY?
Yet, this trivial injury was the first in a series of events that led to my decision to take my own life.
My shift started like most others: a cup of coffee before turnover and ask the guys coming off how their shift went. I asked if they had anything burning, traumatic. Did a 2AM medic assist from some far away agency in the country? I inquired if they pulled any good pranks on each other or if they just napped and had a good meal.
My fellow firefighters and I jokingly argued about who had to operate the engine for the day and who got to fight fire. Our lieutenant would usually just laugh. Even though there was a standing order of switching daily assignments, it often resulted in one of us trying to convince the other that they were the one who driven on the last shift. Luckily for me, I had a good memory, but it was all in fun. It was my turn. I accepted the task and did my apparatus checks.
It was a busy day filled with multiple calls, all EMS, and a day with extrication equipment in a local junkyard. Finally, we had some downtime later in the evening. We followed dinner with cleaning, and then relaxed watching TV. Our relaxation was cut short by an EMS call, but it was no surprise. The entire call was smooth and short – the best kind. As the squad members prepared for the ride, my partner and I carried the stretcher down a few stairs in front of the house, and loaded the patient into the ambulance.
As I walked back to the engine, I felt a little burning in my stomach, but did not pay any real attention to it. When I stepped up into the operator’s seat, the burn became much more painful. I took notice. I decided to go straight to bed when we returned to the station. Surprisingly, that was the last call of the night. However, I did not sleep very well.
When I awoke the next morning, the pain had become severe and now radiated in my back. I knew it was more than a pulled muscle. I stayed after shift turnover to make the reports and get authorization from the department’s workers compensation insurance agency, then made an appointment to get checked out. The diagnosis was a pulled muscle. The treatment was a week of light duty.
I sent my captain a message informing him of my situation and was told I had to call the chief and tell him. A feeling of doom began to take over me. I did not want to cause any problems for my shift. We were already one short due to frozen positions and coverage was often difficult if two people needed the same shift off.
I decided to eat before making the call. As I left the restaurant, I knew I had to call, but started feeling really embarrassed and very insecure – neither of which part of my personality. I sat in my car for an hour before mustering up the courage. The minute long conversation was met with indifference.
The following week I returned for another evaluation at the doctor. Nothing had changed. I continued to be in severe pain. My treatment this time included another week of light duty, a referral to a general surgeon, and a bottle of Vicodin (Hydrocodone). The weeks of light duty continued. Each day I would sit in a storage closet that had been converted into a small office. My tasks were answering the phones, giving station tours, and showing visitors the small fire museum in the station. Yet, most days I sat at my desk for the entire day, avoiding everyone. I did not want to stand there as they ran calls or trained. The worst part was being transferred from my station to the main administration station a mile away.
My treatment generally consisted of being placed on light duty for a week or two until another check-up and tests were performed, and, of course, more Vicodin. This cycle lasted from October until the week before Christmas when the surgeon realized it was not a good idea for me to load up on narcotics while making the hour commute twice a day between my home and the fire department. My abdomen was also becoming inflamed and swelling from sitting all day. I was transferred from light duty to being completely off work. Weeks of being off duty continued.
On Christmas evening, as I visited with family, I received a phone call from my mom. I immediately knew something had happened from the way she was talking, slowly, drawing out her words. It was always a sure sign that something was out of the ordinary. Earlier in the day, my nineteen year old cousin, Adam, was in a serious car wreck. He was on life support and brain dead. The life support was simply for family to have time to visit and also because Adam was an organ donor.
While he and I were not all that close, I felt stunned. He was years younger than me, and like most of my cousins, he was young when I had entered the Navy. We lost touch. When I did come home, nearly five years later, I devoted my time to the new family my wife and I were starting. Adam was so young. He was a good kid who had had a horrible childhood. I kept wondering why someone with great potential would be taken away before they used it. At first, it was just a fact; someone in my family died. I deal with death all the time at work. To be sad or disturbed over a death seemed odd, even if it was family. Everyone dies, it is out of our control. What is the point of being sad? It would certainly be inexcusable to talk about your feelings, or even more pathetic, cry.
His wake was on New Year’s Eve, and the funeral on New Year’s Day. My depression had been going on for a long time, and I decided to go to my doctor the morning of the wake. When asked what I was being seen for, I just mumbled something about being really tired and sad. For a month, I tried the antidepressant he had prescribed, but it did not help.
At the wake, I stood around in an empty area of the funeral home with my wife and three kids – only talking to those who noticed and recognized me. I was uncomfortable around them even though most were family. I maintained my stone-faced expression, never giving on that anything bothered me. It was just death. It would have happened eventually.
After a short time, I said goodbye to my mom, then quietly made my exit.
To be continued…
About the Author: Bobby Bush is a graduate student of American history at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia where he currently resides. After five years in the US Navy, he spent five years as a career firefighter, holding various positions in IAFF Local 3468 including that of president. He is currently in recovery for severe depression. He welcomes feedback. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.