When a burn changes a life, the aftermath can be a jumble of learning curves, new realities, changed dreams and so much more. It can be weeks or even months before anything resembling a steady life resumes. At some point, though, it could be time to revisit the events that started such a life-changing time.
When you were injured, others were there to help. First responders were probably part of that story. The EMS personnel, firefighters, and law enforcement officers who came to you that day returned to duty after your call, ready to handle whatever came up next. Most likely, especially for those working in busy 911 systems, they had little or no feedback about how things went for you over time. Their focus went on to other things while you learned about your new world.
That does not mean that they don’t sometimes wonder. In my short but busy 911 career as a paramedic and (later) an EMT-firefighter, I ran around 10,000 emergency calls. I witnessed plenty of intensity and even outright saved a few lives. I still sometimes wonder how some of the people I helped fared. Memories might be stirred when I pass the address of the call, knowing that there was a day when that home or intersection looked different than it does now. It is difficult to express the feeling of making even a small difference to others, of being that person who can, when summoned, arrive and truly help.
Though first responders do not do the job for the accolades, it surprises me how rarely we hear back from those we help. Maybe you have already sent a message of thanks to the people who helped you. If you met them in person, it is likely that you encountered sheepish surprise that you would bother, possibly followed by a burst of pride. The purpose of 911 is to be a lifeline for people hit by things they are unable to handle. Those who train for the job do not expect (and are not looking for) anyone to think of thanking them. The work itself is reward enough.
Or so we say. It is very rare to receive a card of thanks or a note to let us know that someone is coming through the hard times ok. It is even rarer to meet up with them again. The truth is that people in emergency services are mostly left to create our own sense of accomplishment. It is remarkable when someone takes time to acknowledge the impact of our work. And although we do not seek it, we sure do appreciate it.
Former paramedic and nationally known EMS consultant Mike Taigman, agrees. “As someone who has run a few 911 systems,” he said, “it's always wonderful when someone comes back to us looking to meet or thank their providers. I promise you; it means the world to be recognized for doing a good job.”
The family of a 26-year-old basketball player in Michigan who was successfully resuscitated reached out to Matt Groesser, Emergency Management Coordinator for the county Sheriff’s Office. At their urging, he said, “I brought out everyone involved in the call, from the 911 call taker to the dispatchers to the deputies to the Firefighter-EMTs to the medics, and the patient brought his entire family. I could see for every one of the responders (911 included) that the experience validated the reasons they signed up for this work in the first place. They were humbled to have been part of something so meaningful to this family, and it rekindled the fire inside of them and seemed to motivate them to be the best at what they do.”
Have you ever wondered how to find the people who came to you that day? In many places, especially smaller communities, it may be easier to find out how to send some words of gratitude or schedule a meet-up. According to Taigman, “All they have to do is contact the service on their non-emergency number or through their website.” Even in larger cities, this is a good way to obtain the correct contact information. Simply call or email and explain that you are interested in reaching out to the people who helped you.
In some cases, you may be able to look in your own patient records. There should be pages from the pre-hospital phase and emergency department. The names of the various services and agencies involved should be there, maybe even with some of the names of the individuals who wrote the reports. Sometimes, the ambulance report may not specifically name other first responders, but if you contact that agency they can tell you who else would have been at the scene. And do not forget the dispatchers—the “hidden” first responders.
In his former leadership role with the Kent County Communications Center, Groesser recalls that he “used to be the one who connected the thankful callers with those who helped them during their emergency.” In some cases, he said, the thankful party would call after the fact and relay their thanks. At other times, it spurred the center to give awards internally for unusually positive outcomes or actions from responders who went above and beyond.
Is it ever too late to say thank you? No. I learned this after admitting to my parents several years after a visit to friends that I didn’t remember to send a thank you note. (I was directed to write one immediately!) If your heart tells you it is time to reach out and send some words of appreciation, then follow your heart. You, along with those you reach, may well discover how good it can feel.
Since 1979, Kate Dernocoeur has written numerous books, articles and columns for emergency service personnel. She served with Denver’s famous Paramedic Division from 1979 to 1986, and as an EMT-firefighter for the Ada (MI) Fire Department from 2012 to 2019. She currently serves in Michigan as a SARTECH-II with Kent County SAR’s K9 Unit, a Medical Examiner Investigator (MEI) for Ionia County, and on the board of the Lowell Area Fire & Emergency Services Authority. Among her books is Streetsense: Communication, Safety and Control which was released in 4th edition in 2020, and Principles of Emergency Medical Dispatch (with Dr. Jeff Clawson, MD). Her upcoming book, Stress Injury: A Handbook for First Responders will appear next year. Her full bio and blog, “Generally Write” can be found on her website.