What Happens When You Can’t Protect the Ones You Love?

By Patrick J. Kenny, Training Day Speaker

How many of us got into the fire service thinking that we are capable of being modern day superheroes, maybe Superman? Did you join because you want to make a difference or that someday there might be a life present on this earth because of an action you contributed to or maybe even did yourself?

Let’s take it to the next level: As chief officers, our No. 1 goal is to protect our firefighters so they all go home to their loved ones. In cases where that has not occurred, for whatever reasons, people’s careers and lives have been ruined.

Take it one step further: What if you personally as the chief officer, or someone in your organization, is struggling to protect a member of their immediate family from harm’s way? We all have experienced this situation ourselves or know of those in our departments struggling with terminal illnesses of children, spouses or deaths of loved ones. How does that make the involved party feel when they can’t protect the very one they loved? The potential for devastation, both personally and professionally, is as powerful as a Line of Duty Death.

I learned some painful lessons when I came face to face with my own inability to protect someone I loved. Once you realize that you can only wear the cape successfully when the outcome is meant to be, not when you command that you need those life-saving powers, do you realize just how powerless you truly are. Putting that in writing makes it even more real.

In May of 2004, I stood before those gathered at the annual symposium of the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association to receive their most prestigious award, that of Fire Chief of the Year. In attendance were family, friends, my officers, my wife, Eileen, and two of our sons Brendan and Patrick. At that same moment, my youngest son Sean was fighting a battle for his life in a drug rehabilitation center hundreds of miles away. Only a very few people in the department and practically no one in the audience that day knew the extent of Sean’s illness

Sean was diagnosed with depression when he was only 5. He lived a fairly normal life until he was entering his junior high school years and then the depression grew darker. By the start of his freshman year in high school he was so depressed he was hospitalized for what would be the first of countless psychiatric ward admittances over the next six years. His quality of life was difficult at best.

On June 3, 2006, Sean took his life with an intentional overdose of drugs. Sean had tried every medication known to man with no results other than harsh side effects. He tried all procedures, up to and including an experimental implant in his chest just a couple of months before his suicide. We had been to Mayo Clinic nine months earlier, where the doctors echoed his willingness to try anything. My wife and I were told that long-term survival looked remote if a new intervention was not found. Sean finally saw no other choice to escape his pain but to go home to God.

I thought if the department knew of Sean’s condition, my fellow firefighters would have trouble understanding that mental illness had driven him to self-medicate and become addicted to drugs. That decision, in hindsight, was a huge mistake. The toll it took on me to try and keep up this “super” façade and the pressure it put on my few confidants, my administrative assistant, my deputy chief and a few trusted friends was, no matter how well intentioned, was an error in judgment.

The heroic persona of a firefighter naturally leads to the “tough it out” mentality. I can tell you from my experience there is no way to “tough out” losing your child, whether by accident or illness. You need to seek professional help. Sure you can try to go back to “normal,” whatever that is, but you will find the pain too overwhelming to handle alone. I can say for the very first time after Sean passed I actually had a glimpse of the deep depression he felt every day.

The first lesson I learned was to find out if you and your department have a therapist you can turn to when faced with mental health concerns. Make contact with that therapist and think about inviting them to come in once a year and meet with each shift. Let them meet the people in your department with the goal not to have a group therapy session but rather to get to know what exactly a firefighter does.

The second lesson I learned is you can impact how accepting the culture is in your department to deal with those battling mental health issues, whether it’s a fellow firefighter or family member. By not sharing with my department to a larger degree my struggles and that of my son, I was sending the message to not talk about mental illness as if it was some dark secret and something to be ashamed of.

If I had been more public about my son’s illness I could have nurtured the culture in a positive way, not only in my department but neighboring organizations, to be open to mental health issues.

I have prayed to take something positive away from losing my son and so the final lesson learned is the most important and the one my son Sean taught me. Those who suffer from mental health challenges, no matter to what degree, are wonderful and courageous people. They are no more weak or responsible for their illnesses as is someone who is diagnosed with a terminal physical illness. Their disease is not something you can see like a tumor on an X-ray, but it is just as real and needs support and treatment. As chief officers, we must set up a system to provide help to those in need of treatment.