Any official operation we do as members of search and rescue is run by the Sheriff up here, and as such I can’t really talk about specifics. Also when I’m touching a patient both out of HIPAA and general decency I can’t talk about the person(s) involved very much. You can read up on the official story with officially release details, and the Sheriff released this video for public consumption. I’m down there on the bottom.
So this story really isn’t about the rescue as much as it’s about what it’s like for this particular guy to get a call on my phone and find myself in a world that I’m still coming to grips with.
For starters, the part you don’t see in the video is where my buddy and I got lowered out of that helicopter, by a little wire, with all our packs and gear, onto those rocks, a half hour before that.
So let’s backup a bit to the point where I found myself at a lonely municipal airport, geared up: harness, mountaineering boots, helmet, goggles, radio, full pack. The helicopter crews start to rip the gear off slowly but surely: all the excess weight must go. Seats, spares, everything. Hauling my teammate and I up into the mountains takes a lot of power and to carry us the rest must go.
I’m surrounded by paramedics, the CHP flight team, other SAR members, and law enforcement. Radios crackle with updates, and I’m noticing that this all seems totally normal to them.
A little voice gets into my head:
It’s time you come clean and tell these people that you have no business here.
I try to shake it off, just figuring it’s the jitters. The pilot does his last fuel calculation and we load in. Sitting on bare metal, clipped to a bolt on the flooring, and holding onto the back of the pilot’s seat (the only seat left), the blades start slowly whirring.
The voice comes back, trying to bargain with me:
You’re on the team and technically you’re trained for this but this is the real deal. The is the stuff you see on Youtube. You’re not that guy. You’ve managed to get here, but you’re not supposed to be. You better tell them they have the wrong guy.
A classic case of imposter syndrome, I was feeling it in earnest. Putting myself on the couch, was it actually imposter syndrome or was it my deathly fear of heights scrambling for leverage? I even got worried that my feet would fall asleep being crunched up on the chopper floor. Wouldn’t that be hilarious: rescuer tumbles out of helicopter because his foot fell asleep.
I first decided to get into search and rescue, bluntly, because my daughter’s life was saved by a team like that. Maybe knowing that I’ll never be in the incredible PJ squad has me always feeling like I’ll never really be “enough”, and that it’s a cast of heroes that do the real work and my place is more centered around getting them coffee than being on the the pointy edge of the spear.
The first time I ever responded to a 911 call I was 18 years old running code 3 to a motor vehicle accident (“mva, car vs motorcycle” in dispatch parlance). I distinctly remember the feeling of “Oh shit, there’s no one else coming, it’s just us.”
I think for the average Joe Citizen when you call 911 you imagine this Hollywood-esque crew of Dwayne Johnsons rushing towards you, equipped with everything and flawless. But when you’re the one getting the 911 call it’s a very different story. You’re aware of your shortcomings. You’re trying to remember everything from your training. You’re trying to be aware of the things that won’t let you stay focused. You’re trying not to get hurt yourself but really you know you took this job because you wanted to help people and a bit of risk is part of the package.
The voice kept talking to me, but I went back to that realization I had as a teenager: this is your job and people are relying on you. If you don’t want to do this, quit later, but for now do your f’n job kid. You trained, you have a solid team that will back you up. They’re relying on you. The patient is relying on you. He’s hurt, he needs your help.
The crew chief hooked me onto the hoist wire and unclipped my tether. The spitwadded toilet paper in my ears did its best to muffle the rotor noise. I don’t remember going over the edge, but I do remember looking up at the underside of the AStar helicopter, dangling from its hoist wire: RESCUE was written in large, bold letters underneath it.
Touching down on the ground, I unhooked the wire. Meeting up with my other teammates we got started on our jobs. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I belong in this work, serving with these amazing people. But I sure as hell will try to keep up with them, not let them down, and take care of my patients. The voice in my head can quiet down and take a number.