I went to the retired firefighters dinner last week and had a great time, probably because I happened to land on a table full of contemporaries: men who worked at pretty much the same time I did.
Inevitably, conversation turned to our memories of some of the older firefighters we had to deal with as we worked our way up the seniority ladder; “getting time on” is what it was called. One, in particular, stood out for all of us. I’ll call him Captain Goodman, though it’s changed to protect the not so innocent.
Goodman had been on about forty years when I started, much longer than I thought anyone should remain in a job like firefighting. But, in fact, there wasn’t (and still isn’t) a whole lot anyone can do after a full firefighting career.
There’s very little demand for us, much as there’s little demand for a career soldier who has spent his entire enlisted life in combat arms like infantry or armor. As important as these jobs may be, the just isn’t any civilian component to hook up with afterwards, as there would be in law enforcement and EMS. So Goodman stayed as long as he could, though his best firefighting days were long gone by the time we got there. But his career extending strategies were the stuff of legend and much laughter at our dinner table, particularly when we realized that, at our age, he was still on the job.
He’d smear dirt on his face like warpaint at most fires though he never went inside until it was safe. And, then, on more than one occasion, he’d exit center stage with a tankful of fish, or turtles, or hamsters — all critters sharing a remarkable ability to survive house fires — usually about the time the newspaper reporters arrived on scene. In fact, his daring rescue photos appeared in print so often that our nickname for Captain Goodman became “Captain Gerbils.” And the thing we all remembered best: He would rarely return from summer vacation without a tale of saving some hapless swimmer from the treacherous Atlantic Ocean or a mountain lake, or maybe it was a lost hiker dangling from a high woodland cliff. The facts were often fuzzy, and not all that important.
What does any of this have to do with medicine? Watching all the changes going down in health care today, one of the things I worry about most is physician burnout, and the likelihood that tomorrow’s doctors may be put out to pasture precisely at the point when they’ve got the most to offer everyone: peers and patients alike. Yes, there will always be new doctors stepping forward to do the lion’s share of the work, but they may be doing so without the benefit of the lion himself, or herself.
In truth, Captain Goodman wasn’t much help at a bad fire, but his very presence in the department encouraged our rookies to believe we might survive lengthy careers, too. And he knew the city as well as any physician with forty years’ experience knows the human body. Perhaps most important of all: his stories. No matter how preposterous they were (in fact, the more, the better) these gems kept us loose and helped us maintain our focus on what mattered most: saving lives.
Captain Goodman is no more. Dr. Zorba, too. May their counterparts live forever: in firefighting and medicine, as well.
Rob Burnside is a retired firefighter and paramedic.