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Trauma

When "Swimming Through Trauma" Is Your Job Description

While most of us avoid exposure to trauma, first responders run toward it.

Scott DiPino, a former New York City paramedic who worked on 9/11, is currently the Police Medic Coordinator for the Nassau County Police Department and the Fire Chief of Dix Hills, a New York suburb. Although Scott is exposed to trauma on a daily basis and has been especially taxed during COVID, he has avoided posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I caught up with Scott recently to ask him about his work and what he feels protects him against PTSD.

JGC: Early in your career you worked as a paramedic in New York City on the now-famous St. Clare's Hospital Ambulance (depicted in the Martin Scorsese movie, Bringing Out the Dead). You were also on duty on 9/11. What were those early experiences like?

Scott DiPino: Early on I was overwhelmed by "the job" and all the responsibilities I had. Luckily, working for St. Clare's, I was fortunate to be surrounded by some of the most gifted paramedics in New York City, and working in Times Square provided the best training opportunities any new paramedic could ask for.

Gaderperetz / Wikimedia Commons
Search and Rescue at Ground Zero
Source: Gaderperetz / Wikimedia Commons

9/11 rocked my world. Being a Manhattan medic, it was unfathomable that anything could take down the two icons of our skyline, which for years was the backdrop of my "office." When I arrived at ground zero, shortly after the second tower fell, the destruction was unreal. Worse than that was the absolute helplessness we all felt, and we were left to deal with the physical and emotional destruction caused by this terrible act of terror. As the weeks passed, all of the surviving first responders relived this tragedy over and over at our fallen colleagues' funerals. We just kept trying to support each other as we pushed on to do the job we signed up for.

I couldn't face ground zero again until 2015 when I finally went to the museum with my wife. It was then I finally found peace and could remember the lives that were taken for the impact that they made on all of us. I will never forget my brothers and sisters with the FDNY, NYPD, and EMS whose lives were lost that day, and I believe it's our responsibility as survivors to make sure their story lives on. As the quote from the poet Virgil reads, on a wall at ground zero: "No day shall erase you from the memory of time."

JGC: In your career to this point, aside from 9/11, what are the most intense, dramatic scenes that you've observed?

Scott DiPino: One of my most vivid memories involved a man named Anthony who made the decision to jump in front of the northbound IRT train at 42nd and 8th Avenue. I, for one, have always struggled with those who experience such helplessness that they feel the only resolution is suicide. Often times this made me put up a wall while performing my job, just sticking to the facts and the medical tasks at hand without connecting with the person in need of help.

That day, Anthony did not die on impact. Instead, he was pinned under the train for about an hour while I was under it with him. I was busy starting IVs, administering drugs, and applying oxygen — using my "wall" to keep it all in perspective. At some point, I decided to talk to Anthony as a person instead of a "rescue case" after I realized that I would likely be the last person he spoke with before his inevitable death. So, we began to talk, and he opened up. I wasn't prepared to deal with the aftermath of that interaction and the toll it would take on me. Although Anthony ended up dying in front of me when he was finally freed from the train, I took solace hearing from him that as a result of our interaction and my willingness to listen to him, he could now leave this world in peace. Anthony changed the way I approach nearly every call and he made me thankful that I have people in my life who have always made me feel I was not alone and that I always had somewhere to turn to for help.

JGC: Were there times when you feared for your own life or the lives of your colleagues?

Scott DiPino: I feel I "cheated" death one evening on 52nd Street, near Park Avenue. When we pulled up on a call, just after we had signed on duty, I opened up the door to the ambulance and took two steps forward when I heard a noise. Something told me to stop walking, and — BOOM! — four feet in front of me a body landed. A person who was emotionally disturbed jumped off the 27th balcony of a hotel and nearly hit me. His body bounced off the ground in front of me, and I froze unable to speak or move. I don't remember much after that moment, aside from my partner Jimmy frantically calling my name and asking if I was okay. Physically I was; however, it took a while for me to re-focus and be able to function without some underlying angst, knowing I would have certainly been killed if I had taken two more steps forward.

Scott DiPino, used with permission.
Scott DiPino, Police Medic Coordinator for the Nassau County Police Department
Source: Scott DiPino, used with permission.

JGC: It almost sounds like "swimming through trauma" should be part of your job description.

Scott DiPino: Yeah, sometimes it seems that way.

JGC: Outside of work, have any events in your personal life been as intense as some of the things you've encountered at your job?

Scott DiPino: The death of my sister affected me greatly, personally and professionally. My sister Heather overdosed in 2012 in our family home and was found by my father. This event rocked our family to the core. As a person tasked to help others, losing one of your own family members in this way was just unimaginable. We all felt helpless, and sometimes still do. I have tried, since that moment, to put her death in perspective, and often times use it as motivation to reach out to others dealing with addiction and the devastation it can cause when it is left untreated.

JGC: I know firsthand how potentially traumatizing the things that you see on a daily basis are. And yet you seem to take it in stride, without any apparent symptoms of PTSD. Why do you think that might be?

Scott DiPino: When I was younger, I put things in boxes, filed them away, and left them on a shelf. That was my initial way to deal with things. It worked for a time, and then, well, the shelf was full and I needed a better way. Today, I try to deal with stress in healthy ways and often seek out my peers for "vent time." I find solace on the golf course, or with a good talk about topics unrelated to work with my non-first responder friends.

Freepik
Compartmentalizing: Putting Emotional Things in Boxes
Source: Freepik

Additionally, I am fortunate to have a spouse in a similar profession who "gets it." Countless times she has righted my sinking ship, reminding me of what matters and that I'm not invincible. She also says that I keep her on the right path when she's feeling stressed, so we work well together. Without her around I wouldn't have made it this far.

JGC: What made you choose this line of work?

Scott DiPino: I wanted a front-row seat to life's ups and downs with a chance to make a difference. I got that wish and a lot more. I also appreciate the fact that no two days are the same, and you really never know where you'll end up next: It could be the stage of a Broadway show, a cruise ship, a homeless shelter, a house on fire, or on a highway dealing with an accident.

JGC: Are there any recommendations you regularly give to new first responders about dealing with trauma? Do you have any recommendations for laypersons?

Scott DiPino: We witness some of the greatest tragedies and triumphs life has to offer. I once delivered a baby and then, on the next call, had someone die in a terrible car crash. We are not tasked with judging other people's lives or their choices, but we are tasked with trying to do everything we can to make a situation better than it was before we arrived.

When you strap on the uniform, race, religion, and beliefs don't matter anymore. You have to treat each person fairly, using your skills, without introducing your own bias and predispositions to the situation. This goes for everyone on every call, from the grandmother with chest pain to the drunk driver who just caused an accident. I also learned from my St. Clare's experiences that if you treat people like you would your own family, you will rarely go wrong. To this day, I demand these things from myself on every call and expect them from everyone I supervise.

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