“I can tell you that I have calls that I’m never going to forget. Faces that will always stick with me, and patients that have been on my mind for years. This is one of those industries that PTS is real.”
~Jennifer Baxley, Travis County Flight Nurse & Operation Get Out Ambassador
I did not grow up in a military nor first responder family. My husband, on the other hand, is the son of an Air Force pilot. His family served and contributed to his country and community since the day he was born. My family, on the other hand, served when we felt like it, when asked to assist or when we signed up for a community project. Like many others, we’d sign up in advance, serve, come home and feel accomplished for contributing.
It wasn’t until my late 40s when I began to contemplate the differences in how I served my community versus the ways my essential worker friends do. There was a huge disparity. My experience was me serving and walking away when done, with a feeling of satisfaction. On the other hand, my first responder, nurse and military friends would serve, and when they walk away, they bring the pain, visions and, sometimes, demons that can result from a difficult call or situation. And they do this day after day. I once had a conversation with a dear friend who changed my perspective – I remember it as if it was yesterday.
“What did you do today?” She asked. “She” was one of my dearest friends ever. Kristin had moved to Austin from Colorado about a year prior for her “dream job” as a flight nurse. We met through a mutual friend who assured me I needed to meet this gal, “She’s so much like you.” It was that same friend whose hand steadied me when Kristin lost her life in a rescue incident serving our community about a year later.
I still recall the inquisitive, caring look in Kristin’s eyes as she asked me about my ongoings of that day. So, I told her.
Earlier that day, I tip-toed out the door at six to go to the grocery store before anyone in the house got up. I hurried home just in time for my husband to get to work by 9 a.m. and then began homeschool lessons with our kids. Between activities, I was wringing out wet laundry because the water quit working and manually hanging clothes over lawn chairs to dry. I was not amused, and the day was getting more difficult to manage.
I was at a co-op with our youngest, and we were sitting in a circle of six cross-legged kiddos at the community school beside me as I led a collage activity. Mid-sentence, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to my youngest, and he looked at me with bright, sparkling eyes. He then reached up and mindlessly snipped my bangs off at root level on the left side, right in front of the other shocked children in the circle. The little blonde girl to his left then looked at her scissors and with a similar crazed gaze, turned to the boy to her left, scissors held high.
“Stop! OK, everyone, let’s put all the scissors on the floor in front of us!” I was furious. The worst day ever – to lose the left side of my bangs to my own scissor-yielding four-year-old!
Kristin laughed with abandon. I was appalled yet intrigued by how my awful day could trigger her funny bone.
“OK, smartie, top that,” I challenged her. “Tell me how your day could get worse: a broken washing machine, air drying laundry and a loss of bangs!”
Unabashed, she started in a similar pattern. She had made lunch for herself and her husband, headed to the hangar for a morning meeting, attended a NICU meeting at St. David’s, talked on the phone with the locksmith, and then settled into her favorite chair at the hangar with her laptop to get some paperwork done while waiting for her shift to end.
“But then a call came in,” she announced, and then quickly countered with, “Hey, want to go paddleboard before sunset?”
Me? Miss a paddle outing? After the day I’d had? With our daily narrations in the past, off we went.
We splashed our boards and side-by-side headed upstream to Mansfield Dam. It was calm, still and gorgeous. Five miles up, we dropped to sit on our boards and silently soak our feet in the cold waters in the shadows of the dam with only the sound of rippling water surrounding us.
Then she broke the silence, “It was an awful call.”
I looked at her; she was looking deep and profoundly into the water with squinted, haunted eyes. The water had unlocked the memories – the difficulty and despair that her last call of the day had etched into her soul.
“An entire vehicle of people, too many people than the vehicle was made for, none of them buckled in,” she shared. “They were apparently driving fast. Way, way too fast. It was so awful.”
I looked at her, raw with compassion. My heart ached for the untold story I now saw in her eyes while my head spun on the selfishness I was feeling. My bangs. My washer. My dinner. Why hadn’t I prodded a bit more earlier when she changed the subject? I realized it was because I didn’t want her to relive the horrors when I thought she wanted to escape them while off shift. But what I didn’t realize was the traumas were only getting stacked deeper and deeper – more agony, heartache and suffering with each.
When my friend lost her life serving our community the next year, my biggest regret was never asking her about what haunted her – what those difficult shifts were doing to her mind, heart and soul. What tools could we utilize to help manage the suffering lying within?
It was this loss that fueled us to start a foundation, Operation Get Out, to provide outdoor and on-the-water experiences as a wellness tool for our front-line workers to reset and restore. Part of that same mission for me is to own my story and share my regret with others of not walking into the darkness of trauma and PTS with my friend and leaving her alone to deal with those demons herself.
I never told my friend “thank you” for all she did to serve our community. At that time, I never really considered the magnitude of what she was mentally and emotionally going through. But now, especially after the pandemic, the riots and the pain our country has endured physically, I cannot walk past a front-line worker or first responder without giving them a heartfelt, soulful gaze, similar to what I remember seeing in my friend’s eyes. It comes from the heart and is full of compassion and gratitude. It’s full of a similar pain but mine from the words I did not say but choose to share frequently now. Thank you.
About the Author
Cindy is a native Austinite with a lifelong pursuit of providing experiences to individuals that positively affect mind, body and spiritual fitness. She is director of fitness and water Sports at Lake Austin Spa Resort, co-founder of Operation Get Out and Get Out Girl, and an ambassador of Blue Mind Life. Cindy has a full resume of podium results in Ironman full and half distances, Xterra, marathons, paddleboarding, waterskiing and adventure racing.