This week I am in Los Angeles with an outstanding group of coaches from around the world. We are here together seeing, sharing, experiencing, and learning about deepening our understanding and intensifying impact. The more meaningful our coaching is to our clients, the greater the impact is in the world.
Each night we’ve been gathering after hours around a backyard fire for company and conversation. Last night the topic of my previous life as a Firefighter came up. Someone asked “What was the craziest or most intense call you ever been on?”
Wow, my mind initially went blank. The first things that dribbled in were big fires, a tanker roll-over, natural disasters and significant vehicle accidents. Then, like a slide show, memories appeared of many people I’ve been with on their last day. Interestingly in the moments following the question about the craziest call, I realized just how many people I’ve seen take their final breaths.
I shared a story of one of the most profound moments I had in my career as a firefighter/paramedic. I will share the story with you as well, in just a moment.
The Perceived Effect
After I shared the story, another friend asked-“How did all of these experiences with death affect you?” My first inclination was that it didn’t affect me. Firefighters are a different breed: We can “work” a cardiac arrest or see a car accident so gruesome that it would scar most other people for life, but then we go back to the fire station and tell jokes over dinner.
In addition, we are an integral part of family and friend’s experiencing the passing of those they love. I have no Idea how many times I have been the one that held a new widow’s hand (or looked into the eyes of a mother, father, sister, child, friend, etc) and said the words “I am sorry…” These three words are always followed by a few more words that no one will ever remember. Still I thought there was no effect.
I woke up at 3am this morning realizing that I now see much more about death. I realized that loving the career and the experience of being a firefighter/paramedic was much more of a gift than I realized. What I have experienced has affected me, but in ways most would not suspect. Here is the story I shared:
Early in my career as a paramedic I had a seemingly run of the mill patient with chest pain: a kind older gentleman eating dinner in his home with his extended family. Though this incident happened over a decade ago, I can tell you where his family members (wife, children, grandchildren) were sitting at the table when my partner and I arrived. Even though this was a “usual call” I had a feeling this was more serious than it seemed and called for another crew of two firefighters to help. The other crew arrived minutes later and didn’t see a reason to be there—all seemed fine. So the second crew left just after loading my patient in the ambulance and starting an IV line. I actually felt self-conscious that I called them to help as they were seasoned vets and obviously knew their help wasn’t needed. I could have insisted at least one of them join me in the back of the ambulance for the ride to the hospital, but I didn’t.
The hospital was a thirty minute drive. I gave my patient (let’s call him John Doe) some medications. He felt a little better and we were off. There was no rush or sirens, just an easy drive to the hospital as John and I chatted calmly. John casually mentioned he wanted to go home. I consoled him and told him as soon as he saw the doctor, he’d hopefully be able to go right back home. Within minutes he again mentioned he wanted to go home, again I consoled. Moments later John kindly told me he was going home and, thinking he was confused, I explained we were going to the hospital. This happened a few more times and then he matter-of-factly asked “Don’t I get I priest first?”
Instantly I realized I was the one that was confused. I jumped to my feet, leaned through the narrow window into the cab so my mouth was inches from my driver’s ear. With very colorful language, I asked (told!) him to drive faster than he’s ever driven because our patient was about to die.
You’ve probably seen enough episodes of ER or Grey’s Anatomy to know that when someone is “crashing” it takes a large team: someone to do chest compressions, insert a breathing tube, give medications, give “shocks” to reset the heart, and more. As paramedics we also work in large teams.
On that day, there I was- a relatively new paramedic in the back of a moving ambulance, alone, with my patient who was “going home.” I sensed what was about to happen and continued talking to John while doing everything I knew to keep him alert and alive. Within minutes John lost consciousness, slumped over, and was gone. I continued to do everything I could, wishing I had at least 4 more hands. While still doing CPR, we pushed the stretcher carrying a kind family man into the Emergency Room. I knew I had killed him. It was my fault. I could have done so many things differently. I watched as the team in the ER did all they could, but couldn’t get him back.
Later we were told he had a medical condition that could not have been corrected, even if he was on the operating table when it happened. There was nothing I or anyone else could have done to change the outcome. That was John’s last day and he knew he was going home.
The reason I remember John and that moment in time so vividly is because it was my only experience of being alone with another human as they made the transition. There would be others, but never again the intimacy of only two people sharing that moment. John taught me many things in his final moments. I saw a peace in him. I also noticed what mattered. I can’t remember our conversation, but I do remember it was nothing to do with the “everyday life” that most of us live. There was no talking about bills, work, missed business meetings, things he should have done. None of that mattered. There was a deep sense of love, oneness, connection, and presence. There was a peace and gentleness unlike anything I had ever witnessed. This peace, presence and connection is a glimpse into the “home” that we all have access to at anytime.
I didn’t fully realize the significance of this understanding until waking up in the wee hours this morning, 12 years later. The realization was about the question- “How did these experiences with death affect you?” The answer is: experiencing death has taught me about life and has led me to where I am today. I am no longer working as a firefighter/paramedic, not because I didn’t love the job. I loved being a firefighter… but I saw more, and wanted more for everyone.
Up until recently I thought being a firefighter was the best job in the world—I couldn’t imagine doing anything else! Now my tone has changed: Being a firefighter/paramedic is one of the noblest jobs in the world. Although I now know there is a “job” that is even better. This is why I walked away from my first love (firefighting), and on to my passion (coaching).
Why? To help people live amazing lives. To point towards the presence and connection that John experienced in his last few moments before he left this world. To live in an understanding that changes everything. To help people see what many never see.
In essence, my mission now is to intentionally be with people as they “go home.”
Yesterday I had the amazing opportunity to observe one of the finest coaches in the world (I may be partial, but I’d venture to say he’s the best). In live coaching sessions he gently pointed a beautiful human being toward a new understanding about how our minds really work and towards hope. The client, a gorgeous person, initially thought he was less than “ok.”
Just like you and me, he had been told by the world and himself that he had problems and he believed it. Early on he mentioned that he knew there was something more; something beyond wars, violence, destruction, racism, and fear. Just like him, most of us sense this, but we don’t “know” what it feels like to truly understand the depth of “going home.” In just a couple of conversations this veteran, father, and beautiful man began to see everything differently. In his eyes we all could see that everything changed in an instant. The world will never look the same and he will never be the same again.
Observing this coaching conversation was like watching the budding and blooming of a beautiful flower. One enormous difference between a flower and this beautiful human is: This human will go out into the world and create amazing things. He will create opportunities for himself and others; he might fuel love and ingenuity in all those around him; he might change a kid’s life or brighten one person’s day; he may transform the military; or he might create a massive company or non-profit that will reach millions. Who knows?! This is the ripple effect that has the potential to drastically change the world.
This type of coaching impact is what I want to do, what I am doing, and what I will do even better in the months and years to come. As a firefighter, I often was with people on their darkest days and tried my best to make that one moment better. Now, I help people see everything differently and hold human potential in a whole new light.
This is for John Doe. This is for you. This is the hope that we all get to experience “Going Home” many years before we take our last breath.
Someday will eventually come… why wait?
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