Woman in black dress stands proudly with shawl draped off of her shouldersJan 7 2011: I woke up early, bundled up in my warm layers and headed off to work as an emergency responder, not knowing that it was the last day I would be the “old me”. I had worked all day in an Alberta winter, feeling the cold wind on my face and cursing Mother Nature for the pain of the windchill as it bit my cheeks. I was frustrated that the work day had dragged on and I just wanted to get home. Within hours everyone on that site would feel lucky that we would be able to make it home eventually. I could feel in my gut that something wasn’t right. I knew something bad was going to happen. I was unsure of what; I just knew. I would say nothing. I would regret my silence for years to come.

When the incident happened, it felt like I was outside my body watching it all play out. Cool his burns, maintain his airway, flush the chemical from his skin. I was focused on my patient’s survival. The chemical got on my jacket as I flushed his burns, but a firefighter pulled it off of me while I worked – I was ok. I changed my gloves many times, using the back of my gloved hand to wipe the sweat from my face. At least I thought it was just sweat. We did our best and when it was safe to do so, we loaded the patient in the ambulance and got on the road for a rendezvous to hand over our patient to the Advanced Life Support crew who were more than 50 km away. He would make it to the hospital conscious, and spend the first night alone since his family was too far away to safely travel in the storm. At the end of shift, I thought I had frostbite. Maybe I had spent too long outside with my skin exposed? Stupid me, I was a safety-trained first responder and somehow I was hurt. The embarrassment would keep me from saying anything that night. Later, I went to bed with my blinders still squarely protecting my conscious mind from what had happened and what was really causing the pain I felt within my skin. It wasn’t frostbite. The patient’s body was toxic; the chemical that burned him was not only on his skin but the fumes had filled the air around us. My frostbite was actually chemical burns. My face, my scalp, my neck, my arm, my hand – none of it was frostbite. These were injuries I couldn’t hide. 

I still feel it all. The pain on my cheeks as the seam from my undershirt rolled over my face when I got back from the hospital. I was finally medically allowed to wash my hair days later, standing as the water from the shower head rolled down my scalp, each drop feeling like a sharpened razor blade as it hit my skin. Skin flaking away from my scalp in chunks, taking pieces of my hair with it. The smell of the chemical, the burns of his skin, the bite of the sulphur smell in the cold air making my eyes water as it sizzled inside of my nose. I can still smell it. As scary and painful as it was, I was lucky. I would heal, mostly. I wasn’t burned like him. I would be ok. My burns would heal, my hair would grow out, most of it anyway. The feelings from that night wouldn’t go anywhere. The smells, the sounds, the adrenaline running like a freight train through my system, driving my fight to give him the best chance of recovery possible. Since that day my senses have often surprised me and I would feel these things randomly, sometimes all at once. I would get so frustrated that the others seemed ok with it, that they weren’t at all stuck in that place, probably sleeping each night completely undisturbed. How could we all have been in the same place and had such a different experience? I guess we each wore the blinders that come with our different roles. Stop the release. Control the scene. Monitor the air quality. Communicate with Command. Treat the patient. Hold the traffic. Drive the ambulance. I had experienced worse, or at least I thought I had. I guess the shock of it all was still protecting my brain from what was happening in reality. 

Sometimes our hurt is the result of our focus. I would learn to be ok with that – it doesn’t mean we are flawed. My trauma bucket was already full when I showed up to shift that day. Working through injuries from a car accident, preparing for another operation, living in chronic pain, carrying the weight of my world everywhere I went – it was heavy. Each time my body tried to fight through a new pain, the trauma would flow over the side of my bucket. It would begin to drip steadily on my heart, pulling at my soul through my thoughts, stealing my ability to rest and destress, even as I slept. It would take a long time and a lot of hard work to accept that my experience or my struggle was not the result of weakness, but rather that of trauma. I would have to learn to be ok alone with my own thoughts, master the art of communication and continuously improve on my coping skills. I would repeatedly be told I needed to be gentle with myself, even when I felt like the only thing that might fix me was the distraction that comes with working in a high stress environment. I’ve always thrived in chaos; I still do. I think it’s an unofficial employment requirement to be a first responder. 

All of those years ago, the old me woke up and went to work, a young and passionate first responder, ready to change the world. When I finally made it home, only the new me existed. Flawed but not broken, hurt but not weak, silent but screaming inside for someone to help me fix the pain I felt and unsure where to start. As the healing began, I would realize it was easier to work through the pain knowing someone else had felt their own, which I found hard to make sense of. It was less lonely to find my way through this journey when I knew there was someone to help hold me up on the hardest days, or sit with me on days when standing felt like it would break me. I would learn to share my feelings, and eventually I learned that I could be that support for someone else. This new me works to prevent the impact before it happens, helping others learn to take off their blinders while constantly trying to make the world a safer place to work. Particularly for those who do have to run towards the danger as others run to safety. I work to educate leaders on the true cost of occupational injury and illness, making every attempt to have them understand that a person’s life doesn’t have to end to be lost. I am dedicated to empowering those whose thoughts can take the joy out of any waking minute, to reach out when their world is caving in, because it is so much easier to fight your way through the pain knowing someone has your six. 

Today marks a decade. An entire decade of learning about my own trauma and healing. I have learned more about myself in the last decade than I did in the 23 years that came before it. Today is a reminder that sometimes an anniversary can sneak up on you, take the air from your lungs, and fill your eyes with tears so heavy that you can’t help but hang your head. No matter how bad your today is, please remember that tomorrow will always bring with it another chance to make the world a better place. Knowing this, I will spend the next decade using all of my tomorrows to help others heal from their darkest todays — in hopes that one day the whole world can be filled with tomorrow’s light. 

January 7, 2011 – The day the new me was born. 

Wynny Sillito
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