On our firehouse tours, I am often asked by eager school children or their doubly eager parents, “What is the most important tool you carry on the fire truck to rescue someone?”
We ask the children what they think. “The jaws of life to help someone trapped in a car,” a little one will enthusiastically yell out. “The water for putting out the fire,” another will say. “The 100 foot ladder to rescue a cat out of a tree,” the future veterinarian with pigtails will exclaim. All good contenders for the most important tool carried on the fire truck, to be sure.
The Most Powerful Tool
As I answer their questions about the powerful hydraulic tools or versatile aerial ladder used to save lives in different emergencies, I smile to myself as I recall the most important tool I have found in my fire truck toolbox. And, in my experience, it is the most powerful one of all.
The first time I became aware of this formidable yet stealthy tool, I had only been on the department for a short year or so. We were zooming down the freeway on our way to a car accident. In the back of the rig sat an even more rookie firefighter than I. Next to him sat his mom, who was buckled in and big-eyed, on her first ride-a-long – proud of her son and curious to see what exactly he did in his new job.
We got to the scene, assessed the moderate damage to the vehicles and a few patients who needed our care. After a relatively uncomplicated extrication, treating of shaken-up but intact patients, and getting them on their way to the hospital for further evaluation, we got our selves and our equipment back onto the rig. The rookie’s mom looked elated; she was ready to shower us with accolades for our heroic work, I-—and my youthful pride—was certain.
I am sure my shoulders fairly slumped when, instead of acknowledging our expertise at using the heavy rescue tools and equipment, she proceeded to tell me how impressed she was with how I helped my patients feel calm and reassured during the chaos of the emergency scene as I treated their minor injuries. I silently lamented to myself. “Didn’t she see all the other stuff we had done—stabilizing the vehicle, using the fifty pound extrication cutters to open up the car and get to the patient?”
The Gift of Presence
She continued in her genuine appreciation. She marveled at how visibly the patients had become calmed and soothed as we gently listened, comforted and treated them. As youthful pride quietly slinked away, I softened and eventually began to hear her. The rookie’s wise mom knew something I hadn’t completely grasped the scope of quite yet.
I know now that her enlightened observations and acknowledgements in that moment, quite possibly forever influenced who I am as a person and a firefighter today. Over the years this memory has returned to me many times, as I have learned exactly how profound this simple and powerful gift of presence can be in someone’s time of need.
While the world of emergency response offers hundreds of protocols, treatments and advanced care, all designed in the best interest of patient care and survival, I have found that sincere and genuine presence is as important as all the bandaging and modern medical attention in the world. Those who are injured and ill need presence as much as they need medical care. In fact, we all need the magic touch of presence. Observe how the child, the animal, the plant all thrive in the powerful energy of presence.
Later in my fire career, as I became trained to debrief my fellow firefighters and community members after traumatic incidents and tragedies, I learned that there is a phrase in Uganda that is spoken in times of suffering. “I stand beside you,” they say to one another.
And so, this healing power of presence lives as true in the realms of emergency care as it does in our own personal experiences. When we stand in presence, beside our friends, our children and even strangers, we become witnesses to their experience or their individual expressions. I believe this mere act of witnessing is the beginning of healing ourselves and one another.
Often times we may not be able to solve problems or take away pain. However, as we stand beside one another, whether it is somehow an act of allegiance to our humanity or a demonstration of compassion, our simple presence is a profound gift to our fellow brothers and sisters—comforting and reassuring us all in our journey together in the varied spectrum of the human experience.
I have learned many things in my fire career, and the gift of presence may just be at the top of the list.
Thank you, Rodrigo’s mom.