I don’t know if people like me–people who are trained to respond and are confident in their ability to do so–see mass casualties differently than most. When I see images from the latest disaster, terrorist attack, or mass shooting flash across my screen, my eyes are drawn to the rescuers, not the victims. I focus on the job at hand and the people doing it. I wonder what they are thinking, how they are managing, what emotions they are ignoring, and how they will cope.
I think of the people behind the uniforms and the mass of chemicals that are accumulating in their bodies; the adrenaline, cortisone, dopamine, and others I do not remember that give them the fortitude to perform in horrific conditions. I remember stepping over bodies of obviously dead people to get to the living, how sometimes I had to lie across a body to get to a victim, and waiting for the hydraulic rescue tools to free us. I remember thinking I was okay, it was part of the job, we all do it, we all survive, and we all do it again.
Little did I know I would never forget.
If who we become is a direct result of what we have done, it is imperative that we focus on the lives we saved, not the ones we stepped over. I do not see the face of the guy dead in the driver’s seat anymore; I see the girl in the passenger seat who survived. I even remember her name. The body is just that, in my mind anyway; I cannot think of him, I don’t think of him, he is gone, and we are not.
If there is one thing I know better than everything else, it is this: What we do may not define us, but it certainly shapes who we become. Our personalities are fluid; we never stop changing. Life experience changes us subtly; we do not notice those gradual shifts in perception. It is only when looking back, often through the eyes of the people who are actively responding to emergencies, that everything becomes clear: We are not hard; we are not machines; we are not tools to be used, put away, and used again until there is no more life left and a replacement is needed. We are human beings, made exactly like the people who need us.
It is human beings who have to be there when things get ugly.
And if not us, then who?
Who will they call when the bullets are hitting their targets?
When they are hunkered down, bleeding, dying.
When sirens in the distance are the only thing they have to hold on to.
When all is lost.
Who will they call?
They call us. First Responders. The Army isn’t coming, the Marines either. It’s their neighbors who respond, their fathers, their sisters, their friends. It’s the people they see at the market in their street clothes, the ones standing in line with them at the coffee shop, and the ones on duty, in uniform and prepared for the unimaginable. When their world descends to madness and nothing makes sense, we respond.
We are everywhere we are needed, nestled in neighborhoods, patrolling the streets, sitting on corners in our ambulances waiting for the call. We are in the crowd that comes under attack, never really off duty, once trained and experienced it matters not when we are needed, only that we are.
Most of us will never be called to a mass casualty or be present when tragedy strikes. All of us carry with us the know-how and presence of mind to act in an emergency. None of us wants our training, experience, and demeanor to be needed.
This time it was Las Vegas. Every time it’s the police, the firefighters, and the EMTs running toward the gunfire. Somehow we make careers out of it and walk among our families, friends, and neighbors as if we are just like everybody else. But deep down I think every one of us knows that we are different. And if we don’t know it now, we will definitely find out.