SURVIVOR FIREFIGHTERS LEARN TO SOAR (PART 3 of 3)
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.
PART THREE – STEVE’S STORY …
FROM SURVIVING TO THRIVING
Despite losing almost all of his fingers to amputations, firefighter Steve Halliday of New York says he got lucky. The support that he received during his burn recovery was overwhelming. “There were almost too many people and too much help,” he laughs, “It was almost exhausting because there were always people around.”
In November 2002, Halliday responded to a basement fire in Queens. While searching the first floor, the temperature inside the house began to rapidly rise. “That’s when you need to get out. Now.” The house lit up from floor to ceiling. Halliday says in this situation you are past the point of crawling. He and the other firefighters made a run for the door, bumping into walls and furniture as they tore blindly through the smoke. Halliday banged into an entertainment center, causing it to fall on top of him— television and all. His helmet had also been knocked off. He was still breathing through his mask, but his oxygen was running low.
While the other firefighters quelled the flames from outside, Halliday recalls his vision faded from bright red to black. “I assumed I was dying at that point,” he says. He was pinned for only 15–30 seconds before the fire was put out. It was a quick burn, Halliday says, but under temperature conditions ranging from 1500 to 3000 degrees, it was an effective one.
Halliday was placed under a medically induced coma for 6 weeks. In that time, he went through eight surgeries while his family and friends went through the emotional turmoil of not knowing whether or not he would live. “There is a lot to be said for what the caregivers go through,” he says.
Like many burn survivors, nothing could have prepared him for the shock he would receive upon waking. “I woke up thinking it was just a day ago…it’s so surreal. Life goes on and you miss a lot.” Halliday’s wife wanted to make sure he was out of his coma before Christmas. Meanwhile, a local youth soccer team ensured that his yard was kept up. His sister moved into their home so that his children could continue school while his wife was granted a year off of work to be at his side. The New York Firefighters Burn Center Foundation put his wife in a hotel near Weill Cornell Medical Center, where he was recovering. Two NYC firefighters were at his family’s beck and call at all times. The fire department, along with the community, made sure his boat was properly stored, that the remodeling on his house was finished, and that handles that Halliday would be able to use were installed there. From his doctors to his family to his fellow firefighters, Halliday recalls, “Every question I had, there was an answer for. I can’t say enough about the care I received.”
After 2 months in recovery, Halliday left Cornell. A couple hundred firefighters and a press conference waited to greet him outside the door. Then he was taken by limo to an inpatient rehab facility.
Halliday, 51, retired as a lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department. He had survived 9-11, a situation that he recalls left many people feeling helpless in its aftermath. “After that, they took every opportunity to help.”
Halliday says he feels humbled by the outpouring of support and wishes everybody could have the experience he did.
“Everybody can [recover], they just need the help…There are so many pieces that go into recovery,” he says, “so many players.” The tremendous support he received inspired Halliday to get involved in the Phoenix Society’s SOAR program. He believes every survivor sees life after a burn injury differently, and that sometimes it is just a matter of making the right connection with another person who has gone through similar circumstances. “If someone says a certain thing in a certain way at a certain time… something clicks and someone can change.”
This was the case when he was called to speak to another burn survivor who had received burns on over 40% of his body. Halliday was able to connect with the approximately 60-year-old firefighter, who had refused further treatment, and convince him to attend rehabilitation. Halliday, who says the man is now walking again—and with a bounce in his step—also reports, “He is going through the program to become a SOAR volunteer.”
Halliday, meanwhile, continues to walk his own path.
“I want to do everything,” he says. He has participated in four triathlons since his injury. He took flying lessons, rides a motorcycle, and started snowboarding. His greatest fear after seeing his hands was that he would not be able to walk down the aisle holding his daughter’s hand at her wedding. It was a random, yet overwhelming thought that he could not shake. “Then my wife told me, ‘You don’t walk hand in hand. You walk arm in arm.’ After that, I was good.”
This article can be read in its entirety in Burn Support News, Issue 3, 2011.
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