SURVIVOR FIREFIGHTERS LEARN TO SOAR (PART 1 of 3)
by Alyson Mabie and Nathan Caminata
They call it the “firefighter mechanism.” Some refer to it as a mentality—something unique to the highly trained individuals in the fire service. It’s the ability to shed emotion, disregarding the fundamental human instinct to avoid fire and, instead, make the conscious decision to run into a disaster in hopes of saving someone from it. In the flight-or-fight scenario, firefighters live up to their namesake. But doing so sometimes comes at great personal cost.
Meet Duane Wright, Rob Kokko, and Steve Halliday. They have experienced the same trials and tribulations as other burn survivors, but from a slightly different perspective.
PART ONE – DUANE’S STORY …
A TIME FOR EMOTIONS
Forty-three-year-old retired firefighter Duane Wright explains, “[On the job] you get in the habit of thinking, ‘This is not about me right now.’ But, it is about us when it comes to the burn injury.” Firefighters need to face shocking situations objectively, he says. This coping mechanism allows for emotional detachment while on the job, which, according to Wright, is necessary. “Being able to step up and do the job when horrific things are happening around you…if you stop and feel emotions you can’t perform.”
Wright started his firefighting career as a seasonal wildfire firefighter with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CAL FIRE). In July 1989, the 21-year-old Wright and three other firemen were caught in a firestorm, a situation he describes as a “fire tornado” that explodes and blows radiant heat at more than 100 mph. All four men were brought to the local burn unit in the city of Chico. However, due to the severity of his burns, Wright was soon med-evaced to UC Davis.
There he spent 7 weeks in the burn unit after waking up from an induced coma to what he calls a nightmare. Twenty years ago, medicine was ill equipped to ease the pain associated with the early stages of his treatment.
“The recovery process was absolute torture,” Wright recalls. Following his discharge from the hospital, he struggled with impaired mobility. It took a year of occupational therapy for him to regain his range of motion. Nine months after his injury, Wright was finally able to return to the fire service on light duty.
Wright says he had a brilliant support system of wonderful parents and friends. “My parents did not give me special treatment. It was like nothing had changed.”
Still, Wright faced scarring on more than 40 percent of his body. At 21 years old, he was worried that no one would find him attractive. As a burn survivor and a firefighter, Wright excelled professionally, but says he struggled personally because of his insecurities. “The hospitals fix you. They help you survive… . It’s the nonprofits that help you thrive; they are the missing link.”
Wright cites the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors and the Fire Fighters Burn Institute as major players in his emotional recovery. “They have done more for me than words can express. And I hope to give just a little of that back.”
Wright joined the Phoenix Society’s SOAR (Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery)program after seeing the value of peer support throughout his own recovery. “I wasn’t alone. I could see others around me successfully navigating their lives with significant burn injuries, which meant there was no excuse for me not to do well.” On a personal level, he says, the SOAR program has helped give purpose to his injury and “gives the hope to give hope” to others.
He is also very enthusiastic about programs specific to burn survivors in the firefighting community. He says fellow firefighters are able to “appreciate what [each other] sees on a day-to-day basis, and how you have to learn to live with things that should normally bother you.”
Wright, who now works as an individual therapist, and his wife (social worker and Breslau Award winner, Bernadette Martinez-Wright) are actively involved in the burn community. They have spoken at the Phoenix Society’s annual World Burn Congress (WBC) on topics ranging from substance abuse to intimacy to the emotional impact of trauma.
“Recovery is a lifelong process,” Wright says, and sharing his experiences has helped him to be able to help himself. “Minus the pain, I would do it all over again. I love my life.”
Parts II and III to this story will be made available next week.
This article can be read in its entirety in Burn Support News, Issue 3, 2011.
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