The Exit Row

Scott Geiselhart, Jared Meeker and Tiger Schmittendorf connect at the New York State Fire Chiefs Conference in June-2017

While most of my return trips from FDIC – the Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana have been unremarkable, I’ve shared previous experiences of traveling home from this conference that have had an impact on my outlook on life.

However, the way my most recent trip home from FDIC2017 played out is nothing short of a miracle.

It was raining harder than a drizzle but short of a downpour when the taxi picked me up at my downtown hotel around 5:30am. I shared the ride with a friend and got to the airport well ahead of schedule to avoid the early Saturday morning post-conference departure rush at the airport. The rain got much worse and the power went out momentarily in the airport while I waited to board and for my first coffee of the morning to kick in. I thought for sure we were in for a storm delay leaving Indy.

I sat in a row of seats near the gate with a group of firefighters I knew, trying to clear the sleep dust from my eyes filled with a week’s worth of cherished encounters and enlightening experiences.

I was thankful that I had spent the few extra dollars to get Southwest’s Early Bird Check-in, relieving me of my responsibility to wake up before 6am to manually check in 24-hours before my flight. That should also ensure that I have at least my pick of an aisle or window seat which I choose depending on my anticipated level of consciousness during the flight.

It makes my wife Laurie jealous, but I have the innate ability to sleep on planes, while she’s too nervous to fall into anything more than a brief twilight of unrest. Being a frequent flyer, if conditions are right I’m often sound asleep before the plane is pushed back from the jetway bridge. I fly so much that I can probably recite the safety message and I’m confident in my knowledge of emergency exit locations so with headphones on and neck pillow in place, I’m flying first class to la-la land long before the plane leaves the ground. That drives her nuts. I’m ok with it.

I often refer to attending FDIC as being like going on vacation with 30,000 of my closest, personal friends, so flying to and from Indianapolis, the plane is typically filled with more firefighters than civilians. It’s not uncommon for the flight attendants and pilots to acknowledge our collective presence over the onboard PA system.

This flight was no different so as I boarded I looked for some friendly faces and got lucky enough to plop down next to my good friend David Lewis, past-president of the Maryland State Firemen’s Association; and in front of Ron Siarnicki, executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, for which I volunteer as director of their Hero Tribute team. I don’t typically like center seats because I’m always afraid I’m going to doze off (and/or drool) on someone’s shoulder, but this was the emergency exit row offering a little extra leg room to stretch.

They were about to close the door to the jetway when a flight attendant called Dave Lewis’s name over the speaker system. I joked that he was being singled out for a very in-depth secondary TSA inspection but instead he had volunteered to “take a bump” and leave on a later indirect flight. [Although the flight change worked to his advantage, I thought my version of the story was a lot more entertaining!]

His seat was still warm when I picked up and moved my butt over to the aisle seat he had just vacated, leaving the center seat for the next poor sucker to walk on the plane after they had obviously overbooked the flight.

Dave’s bump created an opening for someone else I knew, “the next poor sucker,” Chief Jared Meeker from Rochester, NY to sit in that open seat. As the photo shows, Jared is about a foot taller than me, so I politely offered to move back to the center seat in the row, offering him room to stretch on the aisle. He declined, just thankful for the extra leg room the exit row offered.

I had just met Jared the previous fall when he taught a seminar on using computer simulations in firefighter training in my county. We spoke at length after the seminar and we exchanged business cards, offering to share ideas and resources moving forward.

A few months later and right before Christmas, several lives, including Jared’s were changed forever in an instant.

While driving his fire chief’s vehicle one Sunday morning, a 13-year old boy sprinted across the road without looking; to play with his friends on the other side of the street. Unable to stop his vehicle in time, the boy was struck. Despite Jared’s immediate and continued efforts to revive him, and the efforts of responding firefighters and the ambulance crew, the boy’s life could not be saved.

The boy died. He died!

Shortly after take-off something triggered inside of me and I shared with Jared that I’d heard about his accident and had been thinking about him ever since. I apologized for not reaching out to him but I wasn’t sure if I should as we had only met once a few months prior. I asked him how he was doing, dealing with the situation and what I could only assume to be a myriad of emotions and outcomes. He shared his struggles, in significant detail.

I asked him if he was familiar with the “Share the Load” support program for firefighters and EMTs, supported and promoted by the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC). I listened intently to Jared’s story and then shared another firefighter’s story of stress, sorrow, suicide and success so far.

I met Scott Geiselhart in Dallas in June of 2016 when both of us were presenters at the NVFC’s Training Summit. While I delivered my fan-favorite: “From the Xbox to the Box Alarm” conversation which was met with favorable reviews once again, it paled in comparison to the gut wrenching and life changing message that Scott shared. Scott is a 20+ year veteran volunteer firefighter from Frazee, MN; a father and a former auto repair shop owner. And, he is a PTSD, meth and suicide attempt survivor.

You can read his “Meth, Click, Doom.” story here, but Scott is literally and figuratively the NVFC’s poster child for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and firefighter suicide. Jared said he’d heard of Share the Load, but didn’t know much about what it was or what it offered. I gave him the 1-888-731-FIRE (3473) helpline number and told him he can trust the voice on the other end of the phone line, likely to be Mike Healy, a Rockland County NY Fire Instructor I’ve known for a long time and now a counselor with American Addiction Centers, the outreach component of the Share the Load program.

Before we knew it the announcement to return our tray tables and seat backs to their full upright positions was heard over the loudspeaker. We were on final descent into Baltimore for me to make the final leg home to Buffalo, and for Jared to catch a connecting flight to Rochester.

We deplaned in Baltimore, exchanged pleasantries and parted ways to our final destinations after talking non-stop for more than hour about life’s challenges and solutions.

I never heard from Jared Meeker again.

That was, until I ran into him at the NYSAFC-New York State Association of Fire Chiefs FIRE Conference in June. Ironically, I was sitting at a high-top table outside a hospitality suite in the conference hotel with my now good friend Scott Geiselhart who, with Mike Healy, had keynoted the conference earlier that day. I had brought a brand new firefighter with me to the conference: 18-year old Jordan Sinclair, who I’ve known since he was driving battery-powered fire engines; and he got to witness the exchange too.

Jared Meeker walked up and asked me to stand up. (Given the height differential, I quickly realized that I was at a significant disadvantage if this was going to result in a physical altercation! lol) As I stood up, Jared said something that caught me completely off-guard: “I need to give you a hug. You saved my life.”

I was stunned but willingly accepted the hug nonetheless. He went on to share how our chance encounter on that flight from Indianapolis to Baltimore three months earlier resulted in him reaching out and making the call to make things better. He related how he had dug himself into a very dark place and literally would not be standing there talking to us had it not been for hearing Scott’s story and about the Share the Load program.

He and his fellow firefighters had sat through Scott’s keynote address detailing the desperation and despair, near death, and determination to reach out to make things better. Now hearing Scott’s story for himself, Jared had tears in his eyes through the entire presentation, tears of empathy and of joy; of survival.

We talked about all the stars that needed to come into alignment for him to share his story of success so far:

  • If David Lewis hadn’t taken the bump to another flight, the exit row seat would have never been open.
  • Had Jared not failed to check in for that same flight, he never would have been the last person to walk on the plane, the beneficiary of Dave’s kind gesture.
  • Had I not met Scott Geiselhart and been so moved by his story a year earlier I honestly don’t know that our conversation would have gone in the same direction.
  • Had Scott, Jared and I not coincidently been in the same place at the same time at the NYSAFC conference, that photo may have never been taken and this story may never have been written. Their parallel and intersecting stories, with me caught in the crossfire and unwittingly “connecting the dots,” are so much more than just coincidence.

“But most of all,” Jared shared, “Had you not had the courage to ask me how I was doing; to tell me Scott’s story, and to tell me about Mike Healy and the NVFC’s Share the Load program – I never would have had the courage to reach out and ask for help, continuing to wallow in my self-pity and PTSD. If you hadn’t cared enough to just listen and talk to me, unlike so many who just don’t know what to say – I wouldn’t be here today.”

I don’t have the words to adequately express the feeling that came over me at that moment. To have Scott sitting right there, hearing Jared’s story firsthand, gave me a deep sense of pride, joy and feeling blessed that he, we, played a small part in someone else’s chain of survival.

I now understand what this was. These chance connections created a chain of survival, not much unlike the one we use to describe all the people and processes, the stars that need to fall in alignment in our attempts to save the lives of those we serve.

But this chain of survival saved the lives of those we serve with, mine included. For those who really know me, know that these past few years have not been without my own fair share of struggles and dark places. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to be reminded, as Laurie so perfectly puts it, to clean the litterbox of the hurt my mind has harbored.

I’ve long said that, “We are not guaranteed of much in this business, but the opportunity to encounter someone else every single day who is having a much worse day than we are. That’s not a burden, but a gift – the gift of perspective. Treat them, and yourself accordingly.”

There’s an even more fitting phrase often repeated in circles of recovery: “To the world you may be just one person – but to one person you might be the world.”

Who will you be “the world” to next?

The opportunities are out there. Sometimes they’re disguised as something else or just present themselves when you least expect them. Scott Geiselhart, Mike Healy, David Lewis, Jared Meeker and I are now all links in this human chain.

Who will you be the missing link for in their chain of survival?

Have the courage to reach out and to speak out.

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Editor’s Note: Unsolicited, I created the attached promotional flyers for both Scott and Jared to help them in their quest to share their stories of hope and survival with others to prevent another responder suicide. You and all those you serve with, need to hear their stories of discovery and recovery firsthand. I ask you to share these flyers and I encourage you to reach out to bring them into your firehouse or conference. They’ve changed my life and they can change your life too if you just listen, reach out and speak out.

REACH OUT:

Hear and share Scott Geiselhart and Jared Meeker’s parallel and intersecting stories at their new web site I was honored to create for them: www.seeingincoloragain.com

Reach out to the NVFC’s Share the Load Helpline at:
1-888-731-FIRE (3473) or visit: https://www.nvfc.org/programs/share-the-load-program/

 

LINKS:

The FDIC Experience: Returning Home – http://www.tigerschmittendorf.com/2010/04/25/fdic-returning-home/

Meth, Click, Doom. –  http://www.tigerschmittendorf.com/2017/10/29/meth-click-doom/

Clean the Litterbox – http://www.tigerschmittendorf.com/2009/06/11/clean-the-litterbox/

Download and share Scott Geiselhart’s “I see in color again” program flyer.

Download and share Scott Geiselhart’s “Meth, Click, Doom.” program flyer. 

Download and share Scott Geiselhart’s “Seeing in color again” program flyer. 

Download and share Jared Meeker’s “Behaviorial Health Size-up” program flyer.