Fire apparatus engineer with Cal Fire used own experiences to get fellow first responders counseling | TheUnion.com
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Fire apparatus engineer with Cal Fire used own experiences to get fellow first responders counseling

Richard Wilson was sitting in a hotel hot tub with his two young sons when he heard the scream. It was the kind of scream that any parent knows, he said, and he leapt into action.

Leaving his kids with his wife, he ran to the edge of the Huntington Beach pool where a mother had just spotted her 4-year-old son, Hudson, motionless on the bottom. The mother jumped in and brought her son up to the surface. Clearly panicked and distraught, she handed him to Wilson.

“When she gave him to me, he was blue in the face, had no pulse and was limp as can be,” said Wilson. “His pupils were unresponsive. Mentally, I’m thinking that blue is better than gray, but there were no real signs of life.”



Immediately, Wilson’s training kicked in and he began CPR. He avoided breaths and only performed chest compressions due to the likelihood of water in Hudson’s lungs. As a fire apparatus engineer for the Cal Fire/Placer County Fire Department, emergency calls are all in a day’s work for Wilson. But this one was different.

“We’re trained for hard calls like this, but when my partners and I are headed out on a CPR call, we already have a plan in place before we get to our destination,” said Wilson. “The drive gives you a little time to mentally prepare, and we already have a plan of action for the first engine — even the second engine. We can look at each other and know exactly what’s supposed to happen next.”



But in this case, Wilson was called upon to respond alone in seconds. After two rounds of chest compressions, he felt slight movement, and he turned Hudson on his side and slapped him on the back. He vomited water. After the third round, there was a weak cough. At last, his airway was clear.

“About halfway through the fourth round of CPR Hudson started screaming and crying,” said Wilson. “I turned him to the side and he was breathing on his own. I could hear the sirens of the Huntington Beach Fire Department.”

When the paramedics arrived on scene, they credited Wilson for saving the boy’s life. On Dec. 4, the California Emergency Medical Services Authority awarded Wilson with a Lifesaving Medal at a luncheon in San Francisco. The annual award ceremony “honors and recognizes exceptional acts and service by individuals working or volunteering in California’s emergency medical system.” Wilson and his wife, Candace, were present to accept the award.

Counseling

Six-plus months after the lifesaving episode, which fortunately resulted in a happy outcome, Wilson still wrestles with the details of that day.

For the first month back at their Penn Valley home, he was barely sleeping and had lost his appetite. When he did sleep, he experienced repetitive nightmares.

“We’re a family with young boys, a pool, a boat and lots of other people’s kids always running around,” Wilson said. “In the dream these bad scenarios would happen at our pool, but there was never a face attached. It put me on high alert, because kids don’t have the situational awareness that adults do. Just one bad step, hitting your head or running and slipping on concrete … then there’s the risk of silent drowning.”

It wasn’t until Wilson sought the help of a first responder counselor that things started to get better. Today, using his own story as a tool to assist his coworkers, he has taken the lead in advocating for Cal Fire’s employee assistance program. In a field where many first responders were traditionally told to “suck it up,” a growing body of research suggests that many emergency workers are faced with a broad range of mental illnesses and PTSD, said Wilson. Being open and honest is the first step toward healing.

Research gathered in 2017 by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that “first responders (policemen and firefighters) are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. Suicide is a result of mental illness, including depression and PTSD, which stems from constant exposure to death and destruction.”

Statistics such as these do not come as a surprise to Wilson.

“When the guys returned from fighting the Camp Fire in Paradise, I could tell they were struggling,” he said. “They were having problems at home. I told them, ‘Have you considered the fact that you just saw a town flattened by fire?’ The younger ones don’t see that, but the more you see it, the more you can begin to tie an incident to something in their personal lives.”

Support

Recognizing the dire need for trauma counseling among their employees, Cal Fire now offers up to 21 counseling sessions to first responders and their spouses, free of charge, said Wilson. He praises Cal Fire for being among the first to offer extensive therapy to its first responders and hopes other similar agencies will follow suit.

“I’m proud to see Cal Fire recognize this need — it’s really gathering momentum,” said Wilson. “We have problems — we need to talk about these incidents and get that yuckiness out of our brains. Even after a typical shift it can take first responders 18 to 24 hours to come down to reality when they go home. They’re still on high alert.”

This isn’t the first time Wilson has turned a personal crisis into a tool for good. In November 2015, life took an unexpected turn for him and his wife. Their daughter, Norah, was born a month early and was transported to the neonatal intensive care unit in Roseville. Just 15 days after her birth, Norah died in the arms of her parents. As a result, the couple, both of whom were raised in Grass Valley, established The Norah Foundation, which is devoted to helping other families with babies who are experiencing life-threatening health crises.

“I’m definitely much better thanks to counseling and support at work — it’s important that we’re not afraid to talk to each other,” said Wilson. “As far as the Huntington Beach episode goes, I’m happy they got to go home as a complete family. It’s also pretty cool to be part of this new movement to get first responders the help they need. I’m proud to see Cal Fire stepping up.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at cory@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.


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