Phoenix SOAR - Personal Stories
Burn-Injured Firefighters and Their Families Supporting Each Other
Those who have received peer support from a Phoenix SOAR trained peer supporter - "someone who's been there" - describe the experience as life-changing. Many survivors and family members later become trained as Phoenix SOAR peer supporters themselves. Below are several personal stories from burn-injured firefighters, the spouse of a firefighter survivor, and a burn care professional who speak honestly and openly about the healing impact of peer support for those impacted by burn injury.
Mitch Dryer, burn survivor and retired firefighter, tells the story of his survival from a injury sustained on the job as a firefighter with the Oneida City Fire Department in New York. He simply and powerfully describes the emotional impact of the injury and how peer support he received from a fellow firefighter helped him get back to living.
Mitch states that the emotional impact of the traumatic injury is something that he has continually dealt with both during and in the years after his physical recovery. "It doesn't just go away," he says. "The sooner you can deal with the emotional part of recovery, the sooner you can grow." Mitch became a trained Phoenix SOAR peer supporter in 2011 and now offers peer support to other burn survivors and their families.
Danielle Altschuh Johnston, burn survivor and firefighter for New York City Fire Department, shares her story about being burn injured on the job as a new firefighter. She talks honestly and openly of the doubts and anxiety she experienced as she returned to work and began facing fire incidents again. Although she had been visited at the hospital by a fellow firefighter who had been burn-injured, she didn't receive regular peer support during her recovery and return to work. "I feel peer support would have been really helpful for me. It would have helped me anticipate and prepare for some of the emotional challenges - the anxiety and lack of confidence I experienced when I returned to work and responded to my first big fire," she states.
Now she is anticipating being trained as a Phoenix SOAR peer supporter in order to help fellow burn survivors as they recover and transition back into the working environment; "I am excited for the opportunity to be involved in the Phoenix SOAR peer support program so that I can help other firefighters who may be experiencing the same challenges recovering from a burn injury."
Oscar Barrera was a captain with the Stockton Fire Department in California when a call came in for a structure fire with a trapped occupant. Upon entering the home, the second floor of the house collapsed and “pancaked,” trapping Oscar. After waking from being unconscious and suffering through intense pain, he was suddenly overcome with a feeling of surreal calm. At that moment, he realized, “I don't think I'm going to make it” and devoted his thoughts to his family and their future.
Oscar was rescued from the rubble by fellow firefighters and hospitalized with severe injuries and third degree burns. Oscar openly shares the overwhelming mental and emotional aspects of his recovery, which he tried to manage alone and hide from everyone around him. Ultimately, he realized that his injury affected not just him, but his family as well, and that it was okay to ask for help.
Oscar received firefighter peer support from the Phoenix SOAR program and was later inspired to become a trained Phoenix SOAR peer supporter with his wife, Jeannine. He explains, "I met other firefighters that have been in my shoes, and I realized I wasn't the only one. I wasn't alone."
The phone rang at 5:15 a.m. It was the fire department dispatch calling to say that Jeannine's Barrera's husband, Oscar, had been hurt in a fire, but that he was okay.
Oscar Barrera, a firefighter with the Stockton Fire Department in California, was alive but had suffered severe injuries and burns in a structure fire collapse. Jeannine describes her struggle with Oscar's initial hospitalization, her challenge with remaining strong in the face of the trauma and grief that surrounded his co-workers, and the overwhelming impact to the entire family upon his discharge and return home.
Her story is about the discovery of peer support through the Phoenix SOAR program and the benefit of peer support for spouses and families of firefighters. Inspired by the difference peer support made in their lives, Jeannine joined Oscar, and became a trained, Phoenix SOAR peer supporter. "Peer support would have helped me better help myself," she says. "I just want other spouses of firefighters to know we're in this together."
Jeannine and Oscar Barerra converse easily and seamlessly. Where one pauses in reflection during the conversation the other picks up and finishes the thought. But it wasn't always that simple. Oscar and Jeannine experienced vastly different struggles during Oscar's recovery from severe burn injuries suffered on the job as a firefighter.
Their story is one of strength and family challenges; Jeannine was trying to keep thing as normal as possible and Oscar was trying to rehab and get back to work. Oscar says,"we could have really benefited from some kind of peer support. We were all alone, and it would have been helpful to talk with another couple that had been through it and helped us through the rough times."
Oscar and Jeannine participated in the initial development and pilot of the firefighter content for the Phoenix SOAR program, and are eager to spread the word that help is out there. "That's what's wonderful about peer support," Jeannine explains. "You're peers. You understand the experience of the fire service and the challenges of being a firefighter's spouse."
Rebekah Allely is a burn occupational therapist who has worked in the burn field for over 29 years. She has personally witnessed the challenges of recovery experienced by burn-injured firefighters. "Initially, the injured firefighter in the hospital receives a lot of support from family, friends, and heavy support from the firefighter community,"she says. "And as healthcare professionals, we help them with the physical recovery." Then Rebekah thoughtfully explains how the most challenging component of recovery is often the return home, as the burn survivor firefighter struggles with the 180 degree role reversal; rather than being in control and saving others, they are the one that is injured and needs help. The emotional toll of the burn injury can be overwhelming.
Rebekah strongly recommends Phoenix SOAR peer support to help with the emotional impact of a burn injury. "Peer support gives the burn survivor hope in a way that none of us (medical professionals) can provide. Just talking with a peer supporter and hearing the stories from someone whose "been there" can be very healing. We want firefighter burn survivors to know that it is very common to have struggles in their journey of recovery. It is OK to ask for help. You are not alone."
Luis Nevarez has been a firefighter for over 25 years. In January 2002 while responding to a downed power line call, he suffered severe electrical burn injuries that ultimately led to the amputation of his left forearm. In recalling his recovery process, Luis tells of the emotional challenges; worrying about how his kids were going to handle the impact of his injury, concern about his body image and changed appearance, and worrying about how he was going to handle the physical requirements of returning to work.
Luis received peer support from a Phoenix SOAR-trained peer supporter and later became Phoenix SOAR peer supporter himself, so that he could help make a difference in the lives of other burn survivors. He became re-certified as a full duty firefighter without accommodations. “Thanks to the Phoenix Society, firefighters and other burn survivors now have this community you can reach out to, to get help and support from someone who’s been there. It helps talking to others who have faced similar trauma or challenges.”