When Flagler’s Firefighters Are A Lot More Than First Responders
FlaglerLive | December 23, 2012
A few days after Thanksgiving two years ago, my step-father died in an assisted living facility in Palm Coast. It was not unexpected. He’d been in bad health for years, and assisted living facilities, those hothouses of wilted lives, accelerate death as efficiently as any lethal disease.
What stands out about that day for me isn’t his death. It’s the moving response of paramedics we had to call in for my father’s sister. She reacted traumatically and looked as if she might have a life-threatening shock of her own. It wasn’t just that her older brother had died, but that, like a sibling’s final slight, he had done so right after she’d decided to take a break from his bedside vigil. I had as well, taking my son to a park nearby, leaving my wife to be my father’s only companion in his last moments, just as she had been his only true affection in his last years.
The scene that followed was more Dali than death. My aunt had collapsed in my father’s wheelchair in his small room, sobbing and hyperventilating. My wife was between the deathbed and the wheelchair, her own shock of grief shoved aside by the unexpected emergency. I was between summoning 911 and a facility nurse, patting shoulders or attempting embraces in that moronic way of males with nothing left to control. My son, my 6-year-old son, was next to my father, more composed than anyone in the room, nuzzling his teddy bear next to his grandfather’s face, unafraid by his sudden stillness or his still-open mouth and eyes, and speaking with him in words sweet enough to steal the hereafter’s thunder.
And it was into that scene that Dennis Kline and his team from Flagler County Fire Rescue walked in.
We think of firefighters as the princes of fire scenes. They are. But fires are a fraction of the calls they answer, and most of those are wasted on impulsive fire alarms. It’s in the daily routine of medical calls around town, the routine of private calamities we care about only when they hit us personally—strokes, heart attacks, falls, diabetic shock, attempted suicides, wrecks, deaths—that firefighters earn their keep. It’s not glamorous, it never gets them in the news or earn them acclaim. But it’s where they shine most brightly, where they are first to revive, to reassure, to restore and often save. They are a lot more than first responders.
And so they were that day at the assisted living facility.
Kline is a big guy, even beefy. That’s not an offense. It’s part of his strengths. He is known locally as the leader of a team of firefighter-EMTs who’ve made a routine of winning international paramedic competitions for the past four years, most notably the Czech Republic’s Rallye Rejviz, an annual boot camp of simulated gore and infinite brawn.
Klein had seen far worse than he was seeing that late November afternoon in my father’s last room. But he got to work, stabilizing my aunt enough that she stubbornly refused his very strong advice to go to the ER next door.
As it turned out she wasn’t the one who needed care most. Adults can get carried away by their own drama. Somewhere along that muddle of pain and grief Klein had noticed my son, who between his grandfather’s immobility and his great aunt’s panic attack had reason to be the most confused soul in the room. Klein’s work with my aunt done, he approached my son, kneeled to his level, asked him how he was, and immediately gained his confidence.
Then he took him outside where the big fire truck was snoring, opened the cab’s door, helped my son climb in and sit there for a moment as Klein showed him a few controls and gave him a helmet to try on. With that, Klein had transformed what had been the most disturbing event in my son’s life until then into a diversion worthy of every boy’s fantasy.
I’m sure Kline forgot all about it. It was all in a day’s work. It’s what firefighters do. But when I think of my father’s death, I think of that moment, of that smile on my son’s face and what it meant for both of us. A paramedic had detected what, and who, had mattered most just then. And for father and son, his small gesture had rescued a memory.