Impaired Driving Crashes Turn First Responders Into Victims Too

They are the first to arrive when 911 is called.  The scene before them is utter chaos:  broken glass, bent metal, debris and someone crying for help, or worse, silence.

First responders can include emergency medical service (EMS) personnel, firefighters, and police officers. They must quickly assess who needs their help the most and provide life-saving care as fast as possible.  They must keep victims calm in the midst of shock and trauma.  They must protect the area so that no one else is injured and any evidence needed is preserved.  But, no matter the scene, most importantly, they must temporarily set aside their own emotions and remain professional, collected, and focused as they protect and serve those who need them.  Yet… they are human.

Day in and day out, they witness, first-hand, the unimaginable… our worst moments, our deepest fears, our scariest memories.  And it can take its toll.  The Journal of Emergency Medical Services details what it’s like for crews to go from one tragedy to another and how it can affect them emotionally and mentally.  The effect is often referred to as Secondary Trauma or Vicarious Trauma.  In essence, because of their direct involvement in impaired driving crashes, they too, have become victims.  What they have seen does not leave them.  And they often experience guilt, anger, or feelings of helplessness if they are unable to save someone.

Most will tell you the crashes that involve children or teens are the hardest to push aside. Sgt. Sam Henard with the Knoxville Police Department, responded to a crash on August 23, 2013, that involved two children, ages four and six.  The following year, he raised money in the family’s honor for MADD’s Walk Like MADD event.  He shared these thoughts on Facebook (reprinted with permission below):

Please join Team KPD for WALK LIKE MADD 2014, by raising money for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Chapter of East Tennessee. They do so much each year to help stop drunk/drugged driving. Advocates support the families who have fallen victim to such tragedies and lobby for harsher penalties for offenders. I feel for sure that each one of us have some type of story how drunk driving has affected us or someone we know or love. Please take the time and read the following story about an incident I was involved with in August 2013 that has really stuck with me.

Sgt. Henard with the Woodruff family

“On Friday August 23, 2013 at about 7:00pm I responded to a three car head on collision on John Sevier Highway at Austin Park Lane. I arrived first on scene and it was utter chaos, with car parts spread hundreds of feet and smoldering with smoke, an eerie silence except for a little girls cry, the smell of gasoline and oil filled the air. The first car I approached had a beautiful but very scared four year old girl and her unconscious six year old brother in the back seat. In the front seat was their father, who was killed on impact. Four year old Kate was taken away with only cuts from the mangled car and with the help of good Samaritans I extricated the lifeless body of six year old Ethan from the backseat of the smoking car, after doing so I looked over to see a man urinating about ten feet away from us in the middle of the crash scene. This man was the driver who had hit the family head on. This man had five DUI convictions on his record and had a revoked drivers license for DUI. This man, who appeared to be intoxicated had no remorse as the chaotic scene unfolded in front of him. A third car was found down an embankment and into a tree, two people were pinned in the vehicle and were in critical condition. The mother of the two children and wife of the deceased was on scene and witnessed the entire incident, as it happened directly in front of their home.

This is what drunk/drugged driving is like; it tears families apart and causes destruction. Help combat it today!

Knoxville PD 2018 Walk team

Little Ethan, who is now seven years old, is still in a Children’s hospital in Atlanta Georgia. He must relearn how to do all the simple things in life (walking, talking, eating). Ethan loved playing soccer, his mom said he was the fastest one on his team. Now Ethan cannot walk and is bound to his wheelchair. Please keep him and his family in your thoughts and prayers as I know many of you have. The entire family is doing so well and are true survivors.”

Sgt. Henard was so impacted by this crash and the devastation on this family that he has continued to stay in contact with them.  In fact, he was awarded the MADD  East Tennessee First Responders Award for his actions that night and his ongoing support of the Woodruffs, long after the crash.  And though Ethan has not fully recovered from his injuries, he was able to walk part of the route himself when Sgt. Henard joined the family again last year at the 2018 Walk Like MADD event in Nashville!

But some crashes are so awful and some victims have such a profound impact on first responders that things can never be the same afterward.

Chasity Perry had been working in EMS for 11 years when she got a call on June 6, 2015, that would change her life forever.  Three years later, on June 5, 2018, she shared this on Facebook (reprinted with permission):

Maddie, with her brother, Gage

“Three years ago tomorrow my life forever changed. I had spent the day working in tobacco with my brother and my family. Instead of working at my regular fire hall that night which was downtown, I switched and worked at the Joelton fire hall so hopefully I could get a little rest because I was going to be setting tobacco the next day too. I remember it had been a great day setting to tobacco. I got ready and I went to work. We hadn’t had any calls. at 11:30 I laid down in bed. at 11:34 tone’s went off that changed my life forever. We were dispatched to a two car MVC head on collision. upon our arrival we were the first medic unit to arrive, the drunk driver was in trauma arrest. the front passenger of the other vehicle was laying deceased in the yard when suddenly the captain from engine 30 told me that they were babies involved and to come on. I stepped in the back of medic 30 and it was a 10 month old innocent little angel who was basically lifeless. I remember thinking a thousand different things as we were working on Maddie, her two-year-old brother was screaming and crying for his mama. it took all I had to keep my emotions in check because I knew his mother was the deceased lady laying in the yard. We began transporting to Vanderbilt Pediatrics and honestly it was all a blur. the only thing I remember is hearing an angel’s Voice come over the radio and that voice was Jasmine. Her voice was so calming to me that night.  Somehow her voice let me know that everything was going to be okay.

Chasity and Maddie

A lot has changed since that day. I have experienced things that I never thought I would, I left a career that I never thought I would, but I also gained another family that I love more than anything in this world. Maddie is almost 4 now. she’s paralyzed from the neck down but she’s such a little trooper. she always has a smile on that face and she always tells you she loves you. I thank Maddie’s family all of them for allowing me to be a part of their family. I feel that at this point in my life I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I have an amazing work family who understands me and understands my past, I have an amazing wife who never once left my side, an amazing family and none of them never ever left me. God has blessed me so much.  Sometimes we don’t understand why things happen and it can take years to figure out why that happened but as each day passes I feel that I understand more and more the true reason that I was placed there that night. If nothing else it was so that I can have such a little inspiration in my life. her name is Maddie Mae. Tanya thank you for your love, thank you for your support, mom and dad and my family thank you for never turning your back on me and to my amazing friends thank you for always being there and to my amazing work family thank you all for being there and listening to my story. But most of all Maddie Mae thank you for making me a better person. I love you with all of my heart and I never will never forget June 6th at 11:34 p.m. when I saw you for the first time. I love you princess.”

Chasity was so dramatically impacted by the crash and its aftermath including the literal life-and-death struggle of a little girl who never took her first step, has limited mobility of one arm, now has to live with a tracheotomy, and whose health is forever compromised by her condition, that she left her career in EMS. She has become extended family to Maddie, her brother Gage, and their grandmother, Becky, who is raising them.

The impact of impaired driving crashes on those who first interact with the victims and survivors is real.  For some, it creates a bond that compels them to become more deeply involved with the victims they have served.  For some, the ongoing toll can eventually lead to a need for career change.  Others simply work through it as best they can.  But, the effect often manifests in other ways.  The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration released this bulletin that talks about the potential impact on mental health and the risk of substance abuse for first responders.  The Office of Justice also has released this Vicarious Trauma Toolkit to help agencies by providing “tools and resources tailored specifically to these fields that provide the knowledge and skills necessary for organizations to address the vicarious trauma needs of their staff. ”

MADD is grateful for those that are first to serve the victims and survivors of this 100% preventable crime!  Their job is difficult, taxing, and emotionally draining.  But what they do in those moments can mean the difference between life and death.  It can be the face or the voice that helps a victim do what they need to do to survive.  We need them!  But we must recognize that for them to do what they do, we have to provide them and their families with the resources to successfully cope with what they face daily.

MADD wants all our first responders and their families to know that we are here for you!  We understand how you are impacted and we want to help!  Maybe you just need to talk.  Maybe there is a particular crash or victim you just can’t get out of your head.  Maybe it was the indifference of the offender that has angered you and is affecting your judgement.  Maybe you have a family member who is a first responder and you are concerned for how the job may be affecting their mental health or impacting their relationships.  Our Victim Services Specialists would be happy to provide you with confidential emotional support, whatever your situation. Email us at [email protected] or call the MADD Tennessee State office at 800-544-6233 and ask to speak to a Victim Services Specialist for your area.