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Editor’s Note: Each year in May, the National EMS Memorial Service, the National EMS Memorial Foundation and the National EMS Memorial Bike Ride gather in Arlington, Virginia, to pay tribute to fallen emergency medical services and air medical providers from throughout the United States during the National EMS Weekend of Honor. This story was written by one of the riders of the National EMS Memorial Bike Ride East Coast Route who attended the National EMS Memorial Service for the first time.
As I write this, my fiancé Nicki and I are travelling back from Arlington, Virginia, having just completed the National EMS Memorial Bike Ride (the Muddy Angels) and attended the National EMS Memorial Service. I can’t think of a better way to lead up to EMS Week 2017.
This year’s theme was “EMS Strong: Always in Service.” We rode and honored 51 providers, and at the Memorial Service inducted 28 Line of Duty Deaths to the Tree of Life. Some of these providers were recent deaths; others were posthumously honored from decades past in obituaries pieced together from microfilmed news articles. The Muddy Angels and National EMS Memorial Service work together to properly honor the fallen and pay respects to the families of those who have given the ultimate sacrifice.
Over the course of this week, I had the distinct pleasure of knowing what it is to be physically, mentally, and emotionally strained far outside of my comfort zone. The Muddy Angels climbed hill after grueling hill in Connecticut and New York, braved wind and rain, pressed a full 102.3 miles in one day, rolled through heat through the farmlands of Pennsylvania, contended with sore saddles, and continued to push the cranks while ignoring the searing pain in our legs.
We did it, as we are “Always in Service.” When we are not at work trying to prevent one more patient suicide or reverse the damage of a STEMI, we are using what little vacation time we have and taking time away from our own family and friends so that members of our expansive EMS family whom we have lost are not just remembered, but their names emblazoned into the history of our young profession.
For those of you who have not seen or been a part of the National EMS Memorial Service, I promise you that it is a poignant and powerful ceremony. From the opening statements by longtime leaders of EMS; to the reading of the names, presentation of the white roses and United States flags that have flown over our nation’s Capitol; to the video tributes showcasing joyous life moments of those honored; to the special songs and candlelight vigil; to the pipes and drums that open and dismiss the ceremony, it is befitting of our deserving heroes. Honor Guards from across the country take part in guarding our Tree of Life, escorting honorees’ families and friends, and accepting the white rose and Old Glory on behalf of honorees whose families could not be found or were unable to attend. It was beautiful and moving.
All of our honorees have different backgrounds and circumstances surrounding their deaths — no one story is more important or less mournful than the next. However, the story of Tiffany Urresti was particularly striking. Tiffany held many titles in her career, including emergency department nurse and firefighter, but it was as a flight nurse that she truly found her calling. During her career, she met firefighter Jim Foster, the man of her dreams and love of her life. Jim and Tiffany became engaged and were preparing a life together when her life was cut short months before her 30th birthday.
On Nov. 18, 2016, while transporting a critically ill patient, her American MedFlight airplane crashed, killing Tiffany, Captain Yuji Irie, flight paramedic Jacob Shepherd, and the patient, Edward Clohesey. During the ceremony, Jim Foster strode to the stage in a suit and red bowtie, flanked by young men in similar suits, and young women with matching red dresses and flower bouquets, and family members in celebratory attire. Jim and Tiffany were to be wed May 20, 2017 — instead, they were there to honor her memory in the same fashion as they would have her special day.
I had a chance to meet Jim at the unofficial “afterparty,” where honorees’ families and EMS providers are encouraged to learn and share stories in a much less formal setting, mourning and celebrating simultaneously as a means of healing. Being a firefighter in a family of firefighters and emergency medical technicians, Jim is no stranger to the dangers that he knew his bride-to-be faced every time those wheels left the runway. He was composed, confident, and seemed quite content with how the ceremony had gone. I expressed respect for the level of class that Jim and Tiffany’s family had shown in attending in wedding attire, to which he responded, “This was how she would have wanted to be remembered and this was her special day.” To his wife, in her life and passing, Jim is Always in Service.
The Urrestis’ story was one of many poignant stories we heard from families over the course of the weekend. Some stories were heart-wrenching, some were funny, and others were a bittersweet combination of the two. All of the stories help us to know each of the honorees better and help to keep their memories alive. We learned not only how each of them died, but also how they lived. Although we may not have known them personally, they are familiar to us, as they were cut from the same cloth as ourselves and those who serve beside us in EMS.
The EMS and public safety families run deep. When you depend on the new stranger in the ambulance, engine, or cruiser next to you, the bond you form means more than carrying out your duties effectively — they are your connection when a split second may mean the difference between life and your own mortality.
They are the eyes that see the knife on the counter a foot from the emotionally disturbed patient who does not want to go to the hospital. They are the ears that hear the car coming from around the corner while you hustle to secure the scene of a crash that happened in front of you. They are your shared nose that can smell and find the gastrointestinal bleed before you find a nurse. They are your mouth that has a taste for just what you like to eat when you have no appetite after working that pediatric code. They are your hands that feel for critical equipment and have it ready before you can ask. And when you finally get a day off together, they are your friend, loved one, shoulder to cry on for when you just feel you can’t bear witness to this anymore. As a partner, you are Always in Service.
I can stand on a street corner and preach this to you, provider — but you already know this, because you live it. The final note I would like to leave you with is a quote by Edith Wharton that National EMS Memorial Service president Jana Williams shared during the ceremony, and echo her statements. “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” You are the candle, the light for someone in their most vulnerable hour of need, be it a patient or a partner. When you cannot be that light, someone will be the light for you to see.
Even though we may not always agree, we are family and we must be kind to one another. If it is a struggle within, please do not suffer in silence. There are organizations that are here to support you, like the Muddy Angels and the Code Green Campaign. Each one of us will have a darkest hour and will need to grieve — please know that you are not alone.
And should the unthinkable happen to you in the line of duty, the Muddy Angels of the National EMS Memorial Bike Ride and the National EMS Memorial Service will help to ensure that your families are not alone in their grief and that your life of service is honored and remembered.
Nicholas Ferrigno, NRP, is from New Haven, Connecticut, and has been in EMS for almost 10 years. He met the Muddy Angels two years ago when they came through New Haven, and he made a commitment to ride with them. This was his first year to complete the entire East Coast route of the National EMS Memorial Bike Ride. He rode for his mentor and one of his best friends, Barry “Bark” Barkinsky, who committed suicide in June 2016.