David / Special Rescue Technician / USA
David is a Special Rescue Paramedic currently operating overseas in a variety of extreme or austere environments. In 2016 David spent several months with special operations medical teams in Greece during the Syrian refugee crisis. He provided various aid roles from emergency medical care to small-boat and shore rescue. In this piece, David recounts his experiences working as a Special Rescue Technician at the height of the refugee crisis.
Recently, I travelled to Arkansas for my cousin’s wedding. Neither he nor his bride to be are from Arkansas, and I’d be lying if I said I had an interest in ever visiting. Bluntly put, Arkansas is a flyover state and one I was happy to seldom fly over. Upon arrival however, the little town of Bentonville had a few surprises for me, including a very liberal leaning populace (strange), a booming outdoor and adventure industry (stranger) and an art scene to rival any capital city (strangest). The wedding reception was held at a stunningly beautiful and fabulously curated art hotel.
The biggest surprise came during a small reception held for visiting family in the hotel lobby and galleries. There, prominently displayed by the front desk, was a massive print of Heat Map I, Idomeni by Richard Mosse. In it, Mosse uses infrared cameras to record the contours of heat generated by human bodies, campfires and ambient temperature. Combined, they create spectral photographs depicting refugees struggling to survive in the sprawling Idomeni refugee camp on the Greek/Macedonian border.
“Hey, David!” my uncle exclaimed. “Weren’t you in Greece around this time? It says 2016.”
I hadn’t moved a muscle after stepping in front of the photograph. I just stared, rooted to the floor by first a trickle and then a flood of memories. Memories of the sharp, rotting smell peculiar to refugee camps. The burning and tearing of my eyes as CS gas grenades sailed through the air. The casual strolls through the small satellite camps located in gas station parking lots throughout Northern Greece.
I knew exactly where the photo was taken. I had stood on nearly the exact same spot, surveying the sharp hills of the ravine, looking for the easiest egress to carry out a badly burned child who spilt hot water across much of his body. At another point, I hid inside a tent with a Kurdish family in that ravine for several hours as the police swept through the camp, kicking out many of the foreign NGO aid workers. I elected to stay behind and check in on several patients throughout the long, cold winter nights. Had I been caught, I would have been arrested.
The flood kept coming. Images and smells and feelings and tastes and victories and defeats piled one on top of the other, each seemingly more pressing than the last. Each vying for a few seconds of my undivided attention. All because of this one photograph in an Arkansas hotel.
“Hey, baby. Time to come back,” I heard in a soft but clear voice. I blinked and looked around. My uncle had wandered off long ago when I never answered his unheard questions. My wife and partner of 14 years stood next to me, one hand on my arm, smiling. I realised I’d been standing in front of the lobby desk for several minutes, silently stuck five years in the past.
This wasn’t the first time this had happened; me just kind of going away. Later my wife told me she knew I had just dropped down a memory hole and wasn’t experiencing an acute stress reaction or panic attack, both of which I have a history of. But she knew what to do. She knew she could gently pull me back to the present and that hopefully all the years of therapy and training would keep me around a little bit longer.
I’ve spent my entire adult life in emergency response and the last eight years in special operations as a Special Rescue Technician. I’m a combat medic, a firefighter, a rope rescue specialist, and several other descriptors all rolled into one neat little title. My wife has been with me every step of the way. Yet every step I have taken in the pursuit of the next job, the next patient, the next rescue has inexorably led me down the winding footpath of mental trauma.
I’ve been lucky in having an amazing support network of friends and family to help me understand and heal from this life of trauma. When I get scared of taking off in an aeroplane, I intellectually know why. I understand my brain freaking out at fireworks on the Fourth of July. I can fully justify and embrace a good cry after a patient has a poor outcome.
But what am I supposed to do about a photograph taken in a muddy ravine? I searched my internal database of trauma triggers and various responses but came up blank. Nope. Nada. Zilch. Giant art wasn’t in the mental resilience playbook. Especially not when it caused me to lose several minutes of my life. So I did what felt natural and shrugged it off. For about five minutes.
Over the next hour, I kept returning to the photo and kept remarking on how weird it was that I had been there. I stuck my face close, trying to parse details of faces and tents, searching for an identifying jacket, campfire or rubbish pile.
When the photo was taken, I had been working in Greece for the better part of three months; first in Lesvos leading beach rescue teams and then in Idomeni. It was challenging and rewarding. When finally home, it was one of the few recent deployments I could actively talk about with friends and family. Much of my other work at the time was, and still remains secret. It was wonderful to hear words of validation and approval. Yes, the situation was still dire, but I had done a small, little bit of good for people that needed a lot of help. And that can be incredibly rewarding. I am still proud to this day of the work my team and I did. But that doesn’t resolve the psychological trauma.
Kind words ringing through my ears didn’t help me sleep at night. It would take several years for me to come to terms and process the kaleidoscope of emotions, thoughts and actions of my time in Greece.
For the next few days, I drank more than I had in years. I used powerful relaxants to sleep even though they wouldn’t stop the dreams. I was irritable. I was a jerk. I was upset with myself. But I finally forgave myself. As medical providers, we are often quick to forgive everyone around us but rarely do we turn that compassion towards ourselves. We all have scars. We all know how to be kind. All we need to do is practice showing ourselves kindness. We deserve it, even if we’re feeling broken. Even if what broke us was a photograph in Arkansas.
Adventure Medic has published this article, credited with David’s first name only to respect his personal safety. All original photographs in this article have been provided by David. Individuals’ faces have been blurred to protect those still working in this environment.