Introducing Fire Chief Tom
“Snowball Sampling” is a common methodology social scientists use to recruit subjects for their studies. Here’s the way it works in my research. Toward the end of an interview with an unusually resilient person, I will ask them to connect me with someone else who’s been a model of resilience for them. In January, I interviewed Mara, a woman who faced down death, and survived a serious neurological condition (See SMC Jan 23, & 30 ’22). In response to my query, she described, Tom, whotwenty years ago, was diagnosed with the most debilitating form of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) known to medicine, but nonetheless,managed to serve two terms as Fire Chief for a Metro Saint Louis suburb where he was responsible for the safety of over 28,000 souls. She explained how he succeeded in managing MS, while simultaneously fighting fires, and garnering the confidence of his officers and community.
Subsequently, Tom agreed to sit for my questions. During the course of our four hour interview, I was to learn that “MS–While–Fire–Chiefing-and Fire-Fighting” represented only one item on his fat Resilience Resume. What follows is an attempt to track down what accounted for Tom’s unusual ability to defy medical experts’ prognostications to fulfill his promises to his community, his family, and to himself. If there is a gene for public service, Tom has it. The rationale that prompted him to accept my invitation was the possibility that his story couldserve others who have been dealt a tough hand of cards and are attempting to make a winning hand out of them.
Stepping Into Tom’s World
As I stepped through Tom’s door, his welcome was as warm as the room into which he escorted me. Sunlight poured in through skylights and several large southern-facing windows,illuminating a colorful open floor plan consisting of adjoining sitting room, dining-room and kitchen. “My wife’s an interior decorator,” Tom explained, “She’s the one responsible for all of this color.” Looking out those windows, I noticed a medium-sized camper parked next to the garage. The story that accompanied that camper, was to our interview, what the opening musical score is to a play. It gave me a little taste of what would keep showing up in the story that was to unfold.
When a Pick–up Truck Is More Than Just a Pick Up Truck
“At retirement, I had two choices,” Tom explained. “I could sit in a recliner, and rust out, or I could challenge myself to keep moving. I decided to get a camper, and set a goal to see all 60 of the National Parks around the country.” With all of his children raised and launched, he decided to undertake this adventure alone, leaving his unretired, interior decorator-wife at home to run her business.
Against the advice of his adult children he decided to purchase an old, used pick-up truck to pull that camper around the country. He explained, besides being affordable, he “liked old things.” Over the years, he had developed an aptitude for fixing stuff, which now included this truck. Perhaps the curve balls that a quirky old jalopy can serve up on an adventure could provide enough puzzles and adrenaline to remind him of his former career fighting fires and leading a fire department? He explained, “I like situations that make you adapt, improvise, make quick decisions.” I couldn’t help but wonder if this old truck reminded him of himself. Here was a mechanical entitythat others might consider all done, but Tom knew that, despite its quirks, and its age, with the proper maintenance, and a little grace, there were a lot of good and productive miles left on it. Tom and his trusty old steed are ¾ of the way through his goal of sixty National Parks.
A Form Fitted Career
Where did retired old Tom get his instinct to avoid the recliner, keep the rust off, and stay on the move? The answer to this question is an important key in understanding a foundational aspect to Tom’s resilience in the face of MS. In short, Tom is an athlete at heart.
In college, while half-heartedly studying nursing, he whole-heartedly competed in Division I track (800m and 1000m races). Feeling that nursing wasn’t hitting the nail on the head for him, he left the university to get training in the exciting new field of Emergency Medical Services (EMS). At twelve years old, he had to helplessly watch his dad die of a heart attack. Here was an occupation that appealed to the twelve year old boy in him who longed to assist others in avoiding helplessness in the face of tragedy and death. Here was a field where he could spend his athleticism while doing immeasurable good. In those days, Emergency Medical Services were housed within fire departments. That suited Tom just like form fitted Bunker Gear. Salty old firemen/colleagues tended to regard him like aquirky/exotic bird species when he would commute to the suburban firehouse by bike, roller blade or running shoes from his city home, miles away. At the end of his, frequently athletic, grueling shifts, he would lace up his skates, shoes, or hop on his bike for more exercise on his way home. Over time, Tom believes that his work ethic and athleticism on the job, garnered the respect of his sarcastic colleagues who were always on the lookout for someone to rib.
It was the combination of job performance, ability to score well on cumulative tests, along with an aptitude for leadership, that caused him to move up through the ranks. When a position opened in nearby Kirkwood, the athletic competitor in him wanted to test his skills on a larger stage. He applied and was rewarded the job of Fire Chief in his new hometown community of Kirkwood, Missouri. At about this time he began noticing that something was wrong with his body.
“An Extremely Well-Conditioned Athlete Will Mask the Presence of MS”
MS started off as an anonymous companion. Tom explained that frequently, athletic conditioning “will mask the presence of MS.” Like my subject Mara, who also suffered a neurological disorder, Tom would occasionally catch a toe while running, or he would get fatigued during a stout workout, or day at work. One day at the firehouse, he was engaged in his usual habit of amax speed/max incline treadmill workout. Mysteriously, he lost his footing, and shot off of the machine like George Jetson. However, unlike a cartoon character, his knee was devestated, and had to be reconstructed. Unanticipated falls were initially blamed on the lingering effects of post-operative anesthesia until their persistence led to his tough talking orthopedic surgeonleveling with him. “There about a half dozen possibilities for what this is. None of them are good.” That list included ALS, MS, brain tumors, and more.
Diagnosis of this insipient disease was a long, slow process of ruling things out. It would take nearly a year and a half into the new job before the stealthy intruder received its name: MS. When he finally received his diagnosis, Tom waited to tell his wife until the next morning. He wanted the stay-at-home mother of his three small children to at least get one more night of good sleep before she knew.
MS While On the Job
At that time, the American MS Foundation recommended that carriers avoid sharing their diagnosis with their employers. Tom was glad to follow this advice. He explained that he was still in the process of “gaining the confidence” of his team. “At first, I was strong and stable enough that this worked.” To compensate for his lack of balance, he would carry a fireman’s “pike pole” that could serve as a cane in disguise. When one of his men would question why he constantly carried this hooked device that looked a little like a long shepherd’s staff, Tom would play off the question, “to keep you guys in line.” His men, not knowing the diagnosis, would make fun of the way he held onto the back of every chair as he moved through the office and firehouse.
Eventually, his symptoms became too obvious, and his treatments took too much time away to conceal. “You could have heard a pin drop,” he recalled, “when I told each shift, one-at-a-time.” When asked how they took the news, Tom made a comparison. “Police are more like lone rangers.” “Firemen travel in packs.” In not so many words, he told me that once you are part of a firefighting band of brothers, they will support you so long as you carry your weight. And Tom more than carried his weight.
Fueled by a Sense of Mission
Like a bat suit, Tom kept his “Turn Out Gear” (Firemen’s clothes) at the back door of his house. Whenever he heard a siren in his community, he would suit up and head out! In other words, he was on call 24/7. “This was my community. My first priority were its citizens. My second priority, but pretty close to the first, were my firefighters!” If athleticism and exercise was a basic key to his resilience, the thing that fueled his exercise was his sense of responsibility to his vocation as a husband, father, and public servant.
Keeping his friends, neighbors, and fellow-citizens safe extended to the systemic issues to make his team excellent. “To attract and retain the best talent, you have to pay them well.” Tom succeeded in advocating for a pay upgrade. “I can be pretty persistent when I need to be.” Tom also agitated for an upgrade in equipment, and much needed updates to his three antiquated, and in some cases, leaky firehouses. To pursue these goals, he had to sell his proposals to both politicians and citizensto raise money for capital improvements. To make a long story short, he succeeded! He was visibly proud of his successes at leaving his role as Chief with better facilities, an enlarged force, ambulance services that were now in-house, better equipment, and trained-up, state-of-the-art firemen and EMS professionals who were excellent at their jobs.
“There Are More Things in Heaven and Earth Than Are Contained in Your Philosophies”
When it all comes down to it, Tom’s medical professionals have not been able to totally account for how he has been able to slow the progression of this virulent disease, or continue functioning at such a high level. When I consider this physician head scratching, I keep picturing what he told me about how he would jog with MS through the woods in his community on days off. He found it was softer and less conspicuous to fall in a woods, rather than on a street or sidewalk. He described one episode when he emerged from the woods (post-run) full of mud, and perhaps a few abrasions and contusions. A police officer who recognized him expressed his dismay, but eventual showed some understanding of the idiosyncratic Fire Chief’s explanation.
Tom believes that his commitment to keeping the rust off, and moving his body has been a big part of his MS treatment. Listening to him describe so many episodes of powering through his MS fatigue on fumes and willpower, I have an alternate theory that is consistent with the very first resilience research published by Viktor Frankl just after being liberated from a Nazi death camp. According to Frankl, the root system for resilience is purposive meaning. In Tom’s case, it was his sense of responsibility for the well-being of family and community that provided the soul force to exercise. This synergistic interplay between these two factors: physical exercise, and purposiveness, one feeding the other, must be seen as foundational to his containment of MS, as well as his thriving.
Resilience Lessons for the Rest of Us: An Invariant Prescription
Over the years, the most common prescription I give to my psychotherapy clients who suffer from any kind of mood issue is that of regular aerobic exercise…at least four times a week. “If you can only afford a physical trainer, or me,” I explain, “hire the trainer first, get a regular habit of aerobic exercise on board, and then come back to me.” Based upon my research andexperience, regular aerobic exercise will provide almost immediate effects on decreasing depression as well as anxiety. Regular exercise provides solid relapse prevention in substance abuse treatment. For my marriage therapy couples, regular exercise will reduce marital conflict by burning off fight-producing hormones, and raising the threshold for adult temper tantrums. The only problem with my invariant prescription, is that lately, I haven’t been following it myself.
The question is, can people like me take a page out of Tom’s playbook? Are you and I willing to search our hearts to locate a mission statement that could provide a sustained source of fuel to get our bodies consistently moving? The secret to your resilience and my resilience is contained in Tom’s story. It’s a vibrant sense of mission, along with a habit of moving the body so that we can pursue that mission robustly.
It is likely that future episodes of SMC will contain more examples from Tom’s generous interview. Much was left on the cutting room floor based upon time and space restraints. The list includes how Tom avoided PTSD following some fairly grizzly experiences of human drama and violence. It would also be interesting to explore the resilience of a wife who was able to avoid sleepless nights and daymares while her husband launched himself on a Thelma minus Louise adventure in an old jalopy of a pickup truck through the American wilderness. Keep an eye out, and you are likely to hear more from his story in future editions. Thanks for reading!