Matt was kind enough to drive down and speak with me in person. Turns out our first dues, while in separate counties, neighbor each other. We have and will run calls together. Matt is a young firefighter who has already seen his share of trauma. This episode is emotional and we discuss pediatric trauma….be warned.
Stack: Today, we’re sitting down with Matt Hartman. He’s out of Loudin county, Virginia, who was station 6 27. He’s been with Loudin county since 2018. And he’s here to talk a little bit about his history, his upbringing, some of the calls he’s seen and how he’s dealt with it. So I’ll turn the mic over to Matt and he can talk about his child a little bit.
And then we’ll go from there. How you doing Matt?
Matt: I’m good. I appreciate the opportunity to be here today and to share about what I’ve experienced. So growing. I grew up in rural Northeast, Pennsylvania, not much going on up there growing up, we didn’t have a good family. My parents fought, they divorced and we were used as ponds and turned against each parent.
And we didn’t have a good loving relationship to model and to see for the future and how we operate on everyday life. I thought every day to day was stress. Anger lashing out. And I realized that through my experiences where I’ve been what’s happened, that’s not normal. We grew up very poor. My mom unfortunately became a single mom.
When I was young. We raised, we pretty much raised ourselves as kids. My mom did everything she could, and God bless that woman. She did everything she could for us, but it was a not, or every day. It was a struggle for her to go to work. Come home to three kids. And also at the time she had a drug addict husband as well.
We didn’t know about the drugs until we were a little older and they started getting a little worse. It started Suboxones oxycodone, and it started progressing as snowballing from there when we were 18. That’s when he had his first lapse. When he started getting into his drugs, starting being mean to my mother.
And that’s where some of that trauma. Stems from as well, being away from my mom, trying to be the man of the house from four hours away. It’s definitely a difficult feeling.
Matt: many siblings do you have? So I have two full sisters, Amanda and Jessica, and then I have two stepsisters, Brooke and Cassie, and two half brothers, Nick and Jake, and a half sister Gianna.
So we got a pretty big family on both sides. My mom and my dad.
Stack: With that dynamic. How much did you guys all live together?
Matt: Seldom. Seldom. I never lived with my half brothers or step siblings. I lived with my two sisters, Amanda and Jess from birth to when I turned 18 and the day I turned 18, I left, I got out of where I was trying to make a better life for myself.
Stack: . So at 18, where did you head off to
Matt: at 18? I found the progress fire company in Harrisburg as a live-in firefighter. I applied for that and I was accepted and that’s where I started the next couple years of my life. I moved to Harrisburg and never looked back, man. It was the best experience I ever took in my life.
Stack: So let’s talk about that a little bit. Your experience in a fire service, cuz I know you, you did, you had some experience before you went to progress. So what was that like for you? When did you
Matt: start? I started when I was 14 as a junior fire member at the Browndale fire company, growing up with the kids in school.
A couple of the guys were volunteer firefighters and I thought that’d be pretty cool. My dad was a firefighter. I wanted to be just like, like my dad. So went over, got an application and not even a month in is when I had my first traumatic call. The thing that I carry every day with me.
Stack: So that was early, early on.
Absolutely. I was 14. . So as a junior, you had your first traumatic call. We discussed that before we even came on air about how that affects kids at 14, 15, 16 years old, even older than that. But so from how long did you stay at the Browndale
Matt: station? I stayed there. I’m still technically a member there I go home and hang out at the firehouse.
I don’t really have gear. I don’t, I can’t commit the time and I don’t wanna hold up a set of turnout gear for someone there that could actually use it. They don’t have a lot of money. They don’t have a lot of nice things. So I just go up, I hang out, I pay my dues, do some of the raffles that they do, but I’ve been a member there.
I’ve been a member of progress since 2018 till now, or I’m sorry, 2013 to now. And then I started in Loudin in 2018.
Stack: Tell us a little bit about Loudin county. Louden county
Matt: is. Incredible. I would gladly say that about my department. Loudon is very diverse. They grow, there’s a lot of room for the people that work for Loudon to progress and take control of their careers and move on.
Starting in recruit training. When I went, it was five days a week, paramilitary style. It was one of the best experiences that I never wanna do. Again, it was one of the painful. Long and daunting processes I’ve ever done. And after six years you graduate and I’ve been at my firehouse with the same crew for almost four years.
Stack: on six years
Matt: or six months, six months. I’m sorry. Did I say six?
Stack: Yeah, that’d be a long academy. Six, six years. Six months. Yeah, that’d be a miserable academy, but I making sure, I thought that’s what you meant. Absolutely.
Matt: Six months.
Stack: All right. So that’s you’ve been at that station since, when did you graduate?
Matt: I graduated recruit school April 26th, 2018. . And you’ve been there ever since. Yes, sir. We were the first crew in that fire station.
Stack: Another shift called us for some assistance. And so I’ve been there and it’s a beautiful station. It’s actually in a beautiful part of the county.
Matt: It’s booming. It’s growing.
Stack: It’s growing immensely. Yes, absolutely. And you guys are gonna have some big houses around you pretty soon. Oh yeah. You already do have some, but you’re gonna have a lot more soon. Yeah, absolutely. Let’s talk about some of the calls you’ve mentioned, cuz I know you, you said already that you had the first one at 14.
Absolutely. And so let’s talk about that one first. What was that call? And what did you see? What did
Matt: you do?
Stack: As a junior member. I don’t know what kinda leeway you had on the call. Absolutely.
Matt: So when I was 14, I think the junior member part of the fire department was just starting. It was very new. Not many people knew what to do or how to react.
I was sitting at my house when I was 14 and we lived on a very sharp. Just above it. We were on a hill. We could see the turn directly and I heard a big bang outside and I ran outside to look and see, and I just saw a car in the middle of the street and a motorcycle off towards the side of the street there.
So of course with the fire department is I’ll go down and just check to see maybe call 9 1 1 to make sure everyone’s okay. I had no EMT experience, very little fire experience. So I ran down and I noticed there were legs coming out from under the gray sedan that was in the middle of the road. And I looked under and I just saw a head and some hair and it was flat.
It was up under the catalytic converter of this small car where a head probably shouldn’t fit. I saw the blood running down the pavement. I knew it wasn’t good. Got on my little bicycle. I couldn’t drive yet. Tried to get to the firehouse to get my gear. And I went back and just stood on the side of the guardrail.
After that we couldn’t. Go to the car. The police department had it all blocked off, so we just hung out in the back. But that was the first time I ever realized that this job, a lot of bad things. And I realized at that time that this job was the job I wanted to do, but there was gonna be a lot of scars that came with it
Stack: At 14.
When you see that, what are the guys that you’re working with? What do they do? Is there a hot wash? Is there time to talk about it or do you just, or do they let you go and try to figure that out on your.
Matt: Yeah. When I was 14, it’s a good old boy system back home. Still, you went to the call and you didn’t talk about it again.
You buried it deep down inside, and you just kept piling stuff on top of it. And there was no hot wash. We didn’t really talk about it. It could just went away or so I thought, and unfortunately that call and a couple more calls that were gonna talk about affected me every single day of my life. And I didn’t even realize it was happen.
Stack: So feel free. You can share that timeline as we go. Absolutely. Don’t let me hold you back and just continue doing
Matt: your thing. Sure. So to talk about the calls, also the childhood trauma, I think affects a lot of people more than we realize. I fully agree with that. Yeah. Yeah. Growing up with parents that dislike each other, seeing my mom being hit, seeing my stepdad in the drugs, not know.
When our next meal was some days it’s affected me immensely in my adult life. Sometimes I find that when I get money, I can’t save it because I don’t know when the next time I’ll get money. It’s a cognitive distortion in my head. I have a very good paying job. I don’t have to worry about that. I tend to hoard some stuff, hoarded food, but it is all stemming from my childhood.
And I had trouble with relationships in my life as well. I. Never really saw a loving, happy relationship in my life at all. My mom and dad fought, they hated each other. My stepdad and my mom fought. So it was very difficult for me to form relationships, getting out of there. I had no idea what was normal.
I thought arguing, hating each other, being angry was a normal process for me. And it actually suffered through three of my long-term relationships. Unfortunately came to an end. And I think a lot of that at the time, I didn’t realize it, but a lot of the upbringing that I had was affecting how I did everyday operations and how I treated everyone in my life.
So going on from the 14 year old call, after that pretty easy childhood, I, played baseball in high school. I had friends, I didn’t realize that this stuff was compounding already. So turned 18, moved to progress. One of the second best decisions I ever made. I’m very thankful for that place and all the opportunities that it gave me.
But again, it also gave me some scarring and some baggage that I had to bring and dump out along the way we were, I was 18 on one of my first traumatic calls there. We had a accident in one of the big intersections coming down, a hill T-bone accident. And this little blonde girl, I remember in the back.
It just didn’t look good. And I was like, Hey, we really need to get this little girl out of the car. So the medics are in there doing her thing. And I could just tell she’s I don’t feel good. And I could tell that it wasn’t gonna be good for this little girl. We got her out of the car. And as I was picking her up to take her to the ambulance, that’s when I noticed she went limp.
And again, 18, I didn’t really have much EMT experience, but I knew limp. Wasn’t good. So I remember. running to the ambulance, putting that little girl into the ambulance. And that was it. After that call, we had a little hot wash. The guys asked, Hey, are you guys okay? And that was it. There was no other formal training, nothing else that we could do about that call it was put it back in the file lab and push it down.
I started progressing through my time there started riding the seat more. I got truck qualified and that’s. My worst. One of my worst calls that I relive almost every day of my life came up. We were riding the tower ladder to Harrisburg city. We knew it was a big fire. We could see it from the fire station, the glow from the city.
So we knew it was on, it was the real deal we get there. And I wish I could describe the mass chaos that was going on the scene. People were running all over the place. People were trying to grab the ladder outta my hands. As I’m running down the street. I’m normally, I’m pretty slow. I take my time. I look at everything.
And I remember that grabbing my ladder and just sprinting as fast as I could down the street, we had to report a kid’s trap. They weren’t sure how many kids were still inside. How many were out where they were. So I remember turning the corner and they were bringing one of the little girls out the front door.
I could see her being worked on in the front, in the street by the police department in the ambulance actually was just getting there. And I remember throwing my ladder. Taking some heat on my side, cuz we were going through the little alleyway there and people were trying to climb my ladder, trying to get in the house.
And I had to physically pull people off of my ladder and tell them like, no, it’s our job. We will get there. I promise you. And as I’m turning around to run back towards a front door, I wish I looked up. I don’t know why I didn’t. I was looking straight. I had tunnel vision to just get inside. And I remember seeing this little girl falling off the front porch.
And landing on the ground in front of me and just stunned me. The city wagon driver came over, grabbed the little girl, took her off to the side and I remember running around front and there’s fire just pumping out of every orphans of this house, out of the front door, the second floor, there were people burnt.
I saw the little girl. I saw the firefighters. You know how it goes when you go in and it’s hot, you look hot. The sleeves were burnt. Forks were melted. These nice yellow helmets were black. And I knew these guys were in there taking a beating, trying to get to these kids. We went in the front door and I just remember the battalion chief yelling for everyone to get inside because he didn’t know where these kids were.
They didn’t know how many other kids were in there. And I remember doing a search. I was taking some heat in the kitchen. Luckily we searched, got out the fire went. There were no other kids inside, luckily, but unfortunately, two of the little girls that we helped perished in the fire. So it’s one of the calls that sticks with me.
I have a lot of, I had a lot of guilt for that. What if I had looked up and caught this girl? What if we had just been a little faster? What if there’s a lot of what ifs with that call and by one of those calls sticks with you every day of your life, you still feel the fire you smell, you hear.
And every year I’m just reminded of it by the videos that come up or I know the date and there’s a lot of stuff that happened in Harrisburg city. Around that time, they had a line of duty death with the Lieutenant that was actually responding to the fire. We were on. He was T-bone in an accident and killed the next day.
So it was a very traumatic time for myself and a lot of my brothers and sisters in the Harrisburg area.
Stack: And so how do you
Matt: guys process that after that? there was a hot wash firehouse. And that was it. No, sorry, go ahead. No, you’re good. That’s it? We went back. We talked about it. Yeah. This is a bad call. We saw some bad shit and that was.
Stack: Was there ever a talk about and thinking back, cuz it’s 2017. Absolutely.
And so this whole thing of mental health is relatively new, especially to the fire service. Yeah. So I’m gonna assume there was never talk about, Hey, do you guys need to talk to, or do you, would you guys like to go find somebody to talk to or should we make a suggestion for you?
Matt: Unfortunately not. It was a talk about ATS, the firehouse, Hey, if you guys need something, talk to someone and that was the first time it’s ever.
Told to me, I, I didn’t know that I should get it out. I didn’t, I was finally seeing that, talking to someone, going to counseling and helping yourself. Wasn’t a weak thing anymore. You weren’t looked at as the weak person of the fire department for going and just getting some help and talking to someone.
So there was no formal offer. I had to go and use my EAP to go get some help as well. .
Stack: So what did, what does the EAP look like in, in Harrisburg? It had a curiosity, cause I know it could differ from station to or department.
Matt: Yep. So the EAP was actually through my, I worked as a 9 1, 1 dispatcher.
So that was through work. I just called the number. They said you get 10 free counseling sessions. I said, okay. Found my counselor went for 10 times and I got a bill and I was done.
Stack: You got a bill. So it wasn’t comped because of employee stuff. Nope, really? Nope. That’s
Matt: interesting. It was. $170 an or, yeah, it was like $170 an appointment.
And at that time I couldn’t afford that. No, you can’t. It was asinine. And I wasn’t getting anywhere with this counselor. I felt there wasn’t a connection that we could discuss. Got you. We just talked about my day to day life. What was going on in my dating life. And that was it. We talked about that call one time.
Stack: Yeah. And I think that the money and the connection is something that we’re probably gonna talk about a little later on because the connection is very important with any kind of a therapist. Absolutely speaking from my own personal. Experience recently. I know that. And I know that even more now.
And so that’s gonna be interesting to get into. Yeah. You had one more call. I think you wanted to talk about this one was in Louden,
Matt: correct? Yeah. This one’s the most recent call that I think I tell everyone that sent me in my tailspin. It’s the call that actually made me realize that I had an issue and I needed to get it taken care of.
It was the first time I heard screaming. I had nightmares. It was the first time I always felt like I was there. And. Deep down. I know I did everything I could, but I still again held a lot of guilt for this call in Laden. We were getting, unfortunately growing pains, going through a new shift change. We got held quite often.
And that was unfortunately a big part of the reason why I started having my demise with my mental health. And I remember Thanksgiving, I was excited the next day, spended it with my ex trying to do be normal. Of course the phone call rings at four o’clock. Hey, you’re held. So I was driving an ambulance in Leesburg.
Dave was starting normal, went to the outlets for an assault black Friday. Typical, crazy. So I thought this day was just gonna be a normal, we’re gonna go to the outlets 10 times. We’re gonna get our case subs, which I love my favorite place. And we’re gonna be good. Unfortunately at about 10 o’clock the morning, the medic unit and the ladder truck went out for an unknown issue.
All they heard was screaming something about a baby. They couldn’t figure it out because it was in Spanish. They couldn’t get a good address. Finally, they were able to pinpoint the address and what was going on and they upgraded it. It was actually an infant cardiac arrest. So my partner and I ran out to the bay, got in the ambulance.
I wasn’t familiar with Leesburg. I remember just getting in, trying to hit the lights and going, apparently my lights weren’t on half the time I was driving, just, the siren. But I re I remember going to this call knowing that this isn’t a good call. It’s it didn’t sound good off the bat. When the ladder truck got there, they couldn’t find the address.
It was unfortunately on the other side of the building, they were sitting in the front when I, we pulled in just the ladder truck. And I remember just thinking, did I go to the wrong place? Whereas everyone what’s going on, I got out and ran one way. The medic I got there was with got out, ran another way.
And they were around the building at that time, just taking the baby into the medic unit when we ran around and started helping. And I stayed outta the way they were doing CPR on the baby EMS supervisors, medics were in there. I wasn’t trying to get in the way. And I was just doing my thing outside, trying to console the screaming mother that kind of had no idea what was going on, trying to talk to the police department, just to let ’em know what was going on, what we were doing.
That we were gonna transport to lands down as soon as we could. So they told me they’re like, Hey, get in the front seat. You’re gonna drive. So I drove, I hit about 90 on route seven. Unfortunately the complex I was coming out had a bunch of speed bumps. So I feel like I wasted time there trying to get out of this complex as fast as I could, but they’re trying to tube the baby.
They’re trying to do everything. And these speed bumps definitely aren’t helping the issue. We got to the hospital. I remember. The people that were at the hospital knew we were coming, they had the doors open. They were basically yanking the stretcher out. As soon as we were getting out of the ambulance, which was a big help, took them in.
We went to the land down pediatric section and that’s when the nurses took over, they started doing their thing. And normally we send the patient with the nurse we’re off, get getting back in service and leaving. For some reason, we all just hung out. To see what was gonna happen. We wanted to have closure.
We wanted to know what was gonna, actually go on with this call to see if the baby was gonna be taken care of which we knew it would. But we were just hovering around this trauma bay. And after four or after 30 minutes, the nurse came out, the charge nurse came out and she said, we’re gonna call it.
If you guys don’t want to hear this. Excuse yourself. Just go down the hallway and all of us looked at each other and we wanted to hear it. We wanted to actually know what happened. So of course they TDD, the nurse came out and got the mom. And I just heard the mom wailing. She’s screaming, looking at us.
And the father just looked ghost white. He had no idea what was going on. I don’t think he could talk. He was that stunned and that mother screaming is what I started hearing in my dreams. I started hearing it at random times throughout the. And that call is the call that sent me to where I am today.
Stack: One question for clarification for the listeners, cuz not everybody listening is gonna be a firefighter.
Explain what TRD is
Matt: essentially. It’s where they call
Stack: it. So it’s is it similar to just a time of death?
Matt: Yes. Gotcha. Yep. All right. So that’s where the nurses, they obviously work for 30 minutes. They deemed that it wasn’t gonna, they, their efforts weren’t. Resuscitate the baby. So that’s when they decided to stop all efforts and move on with that.
Stack: mentioned that you and the crew, you guys chose to stay to find out or to hear it. Absolutely. I You already knew what the outcome was though. Would you agree with that or no,
Matt: I did deep down. I did, but I was still hopeful that maybe something would happen and unfortunately didn’t,
Stack: it’s that closure part.
We as first responders rarely get absolutely. Unless it’s, unless it happens on scene, but when we turn a patient over or the medics turn a patient over to the hospital, we rarely get that closure part. And sometimes I wonder if it’s a blessing or a curse and I absolutely, I think it can be both in some cases,
Matt: it sure can.
Because if you don’t know what happened, you don’t stress about it. Maybe they had a good outcome. Maybe they had a negative outcome, but like you said, a blessing and a. I am blessed that I knew what happened. I didn’t have to sit there at night wondering what happened and try and email people and ask the hospital like, Hey, what happened?
Do you guys have any info? And we’re getting the run around to try and figure this out. We knew. And I think that was a blessing for me to know as well. It’s
Stack: ironic that you say it’s a blessing because it obviously was, it obviously affected you quite a bit as we’re gonna get into. And I guess when I was saying a blessing and a curse, I was thinking that sometimes it could be a blessing.
Sometimes it could be a curse and didn’t even put together the fact that it could be a blessing and a curse on the same call. Absolutely. So it’s interesting to, to hear it that way. Yes, sir. So this was 2021 black Friday. Yep, absolutely. And you talked about some of the effects that you started hearing or you started experiencing so what were they, other than you, you mentioned the screaming.
So explain that. What, how did that show, how did that manifest
Matt: itself? So I started just moving on, like we always do you take the filing cabin, open it and push it down app for luckily for us, the peer support team reached out to us. Asked if we were okay and reassured us that they were here, if we needed anything.
And I was very thankful for that. I think that was the turning point to my awareness of mental health and how good it’s doing for people. I started every day. I would be tired and I didn’t know why I would just be sitting here normally talking like you and I’d just see her scream or a baby cry and I’d stop and I’d get goosebumps.
I’d start to. and I could tell that it was the lady screaming in the ER, I started sleeping very restlessly. I was tossing and turning. I wasn’t sleeping. I was afraid to go to sleep because I had these reoccurring dreams of what was going on between the baby and the fire. I couldn’t sleep. And I was terrified to try and sleep at times.
And then some days I would sleep all day. It was. Never a constant sleep schedule. I never felt rested. I started experiencing extreme irritability and anger towards my ex unfortunately, and my family, I started becoming very mean, I would say things that I didn’t mean, and it started to affect my relationship as.
Stack: You, and you mentioned that you became irritable and mean towards your family and your girlfriend, which goes back to the beginning where you talk about your upbringing. Because that’s what you saw as your upbringing. That’s how you saw how to express yourself, how to settle. Absolutely. A quotation, mark, settle, something.
It’s obviously not the right way. Not at all. Anyway, that’s been through a childhood like that knows that. It’s not the right way, but it’s the way you were taught.
Matt: Absolutely. It’s almost like going back to your force of habit. You fall back on what makes you comfortable. And sometimes I looked at that and it was comfortable for me because it was a uncomfortable devil.
If you might, if you would, it was everything I knew. And that’s just how I operated every day. And I felt like this was being Amplifi. and I would wake up and didn’t know if I was gonna have a good day or not. And I had no idea. And the irritability and anger stemmed from not knowing why I had no idea why I was doing this.
And I had no idea what was gonna happen or what stupid thing I would say or what, what person I would distance myself. it was confusing and very frustrating for me screaming
Stack: at random times of the day. Yeah. Irritability, some anger, the uh, creating distance between family and friends. How was it at work
Matt: for you?
Work surprisingly was normal. I was very good at hiding it from my coworkers. I didn’t wanna look at someone who was weak. I didn’t wanna burden them with my problems, which knowing now I would not have. But I figured that I could deal with it with myself and work, unfortunately was normal. There was a couple calls.
I remember just getting really irritated, really fast, and I knew that wasn’t normally how I operate. So I knew there was some issues, but other than that, it was normal. I performed, normally I did my tasks. I felt normal at work, and that was the only time I felt normal. Was going to
Stack: work. What other things were you experiencing at the time?
Matt: So at the time I started to drink a little more than normal, and I turned to that to numb it. I would drink a whole bottle of whiskey some nights because I would feel good. I forgot about that stuff. And unfortunately that’s not a good coping mechanism to learn, but it felt good at the time. It felt like I was putting it in the back and I was through it.
I was okay. I would do that. I would, I was experiencing extreme weight gain. I was eating my feelings. I remember sitting at home and just eating and I didn’t know why I was so hungry. I just thought it was cuz I, I work out. I lift, I just thought I was hungry and I was eating my feelings. I was just so depressed.
And so out of it, I just started eating every single day. And of course shirt’s not fitting. My turnout gear started to get a little tight. It’s extremely stressful on you. Because now I don’t feel okay. In my own skin, people are judging me. My shirt doesn’t fit and you have to start learning this new life.
And again, I was confused to why this was happening. I was trying so hard. I would eat well during the day. And then I did a whole kind of ice cream at night. There was no in between.
Stack: All right. So you gained weight, you absolutely ate your feelings. Were you still doing hobbies? Were, did you have hobbies at the time?
Matt: Absolutely. Yeah, I started I go to the gym every day. I stopped going to the gym. For some reason I had no interest. I would sit at home, play video games or watch movies or sleep. I didn’t wanna leave. I didn’t wanna go to the gym. I didn’t wanna do anything. That was fun. I just lost interest in everything.
And I started noticing I was distancing myself from that stuff. My ex, my family, because I didn’t wanna hurt them. I saw all the pain and all the suffering. I was inflicting on these people in my life that had no idea what was going on. I started to become cold, very distant. I would shut myself off. And unfortunately it hurt a lot of people when I was doing.
Stack: I know you, when we talked on the phone before recording, you talked about a hypervigilance. Absolutely. What was that like? What did that, how did that appear to you?
Matt: So hypervigilance, I felt if I was always vigilant and always on top of things, nothing would happen to me or my family. unfortunately, I started sleeping with a loaded handgun, right at my nightstand.
I was so paranoid that someone was gonna come in and hurt me. I was paranoid that someone was gonna hurt my ex I was so afraid that she was gonna get into a car accident. I was super hypervigilant. I didn’t like crowds. I didn’t like going to restaurants and facing away from the door or people. I couldn’t I didn’t even like random people coming and touching me, moving me.
I, if I didn’t know where the exits were. my back was against the wall. I didn’t feel safe. I felt like something horrible was gonna happen every single day.
Stack: Yeah. It’s not a, that’s not a healthy way to live. And I think a lot of us experience some of that to a lot of us in as first responders, I think experienced a lot of that to at least.
Some level. I know that I, myself, I don’t like sitting with my back to anybody in a restaurant. I like it against a wall where I can see everything. Absolutely crowds are not great, but no, it’s not to that point, obviously. So at what point did you say no, this is it isn’t enough is enough and I have to do something.
Matt: So unfortunately I was still naive to my own issues. People in my life started telling me that I needed to get help and I needed to get it fast because I was starting to lose people and like very much I was pushing people. and my ex at the time was on the peer support team for Laden county. She basically, I don’t wanna say forced me, but she said, you need to do this.
Now I reached out, got a call back and actually started with a counselor pretty quick after that. But I personally right then didn’t make that decision. It was almost made for me. And I’m very thankful for that decision now.
Stack: 20 what? 20, 21. Is it when that happened? Yeah, it
Matt: was December
Stack: at 2021. Okay. So then the, that would’ve been what, three, three years since the first time you tried counseling, which absolutely you didn’t get that connection.
There was no really help
Matt: enough for not at all. And I felt like the counseling wasn’t working, I didn’t know what trauma counseling was. I didn’t know that people specify in the brain function that we have. So once I started researching this, I. Another counselor. And I actually had that really good connection right away for the first time.
Stack: was a counselor other than what Loudin county
Matt: correct. You correct? That’s correct. So Loudoun county showed me, they gave me a list of people and I chose one person and her name was Brenda. I went to Brenda a couple times and she was the first person to actually ask about my childhood, my trauma.
Started taking people in my life and talking about them, each individual people. And that’s the first time I actually started feeling clarity and I felt normal. I started feeling okay again. And of course I stopped going. And
Stack: started. Yes, this is a common theme that I pick up people feel a little bit better and they just, okay.
I don’t need this now. Absolutely. Yeah. So how long
Matt: did you stop going for? I stopped going for two weeks. I just kept saying, oh, I couldn’t get ahold of her to reschedule no big deal. We figured out that I had PTSD. I was diagnosed that with complex PTSD before I left Brenda’s house.
Stack: What does explain to us what complex PTSD is?
Matt: PTSD is. Essentially, it’s not a medical diagnosis, it’s a diagnosis through the psychology world. And I couldn’t tell you the actual definition. Okay. But a lot of it is compacted from multiple things in my life. Make me the way I am.
Stack: So the complexity of being it doesn’t stem from my guessing here is that it doesn’t stem from one thing.
It stems from a multitude of things. Absolutely. That would make sense to me now. So diagnosed with complex PTSD. And this was with the counselor with Brenda, as you mentioned, how often were you going when you went back? How often did you go?
Matt: I was going once a week, every Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on where my shifts fell.
I would go in the morning. and like I said, I started feeling good. She actually diagnosed me with that and I felt, no, I felt like I had a reason to be the way that I was now. And I was so excited and eager to start working towards that. And of course my depression and anxiety started masking that, and I just wanted to quarantine my house again.
I didn’t want to go. I felt okay. Enough to function through life, but I knew deep down, I couldn’t do it.
Stack: so then what’s the next step?
Matt: So the next step, my counselor and my brothers and sisters at work suggests the ifs center of excellence for me. .
Stack: Let’s get into a little bit of that history.
What is that? Absolutely. What is the center of excellence? Cuz a lot of people hear that name and it’s a misnomer. It’s an interesting name for what it actually is. Absolutely. So why don’t you give it a little background on that?
Matt: So if I could give it one word or one description, it would be angel.
They really are some of the greatest people that I have ever met in my life. The IFF center of excellence is specialized for union card past present firefighters, you go, and it is inpatient. You are there for seven days, a week, 24 hours a day. And the people you meet there are from all over the us. It’s not just prince William, Virginia loud.
Area. It is everywhere. We had people from Maine, Arizona, Seattle, California, Chicago. We had people from everywhere and every walks of human beings to come into that, those gates, we had rookie firefighters to deputy chiefs go in there to get some
Stack: help. What does that look like for you? When did you start?
When did you start there and how long it last? And tell me a little bit of what you experienced
Matt: there. Absolutely. So I called them on. January 27th. It was a Friday. I was at work. I said I needed help. And at this time I started becoming suicidal. I started to question why I was still here. I didn’t know which way was up.
I didn’t know what was going on. And I thought about ending my life. A couple times. I called the center of excellence. They told me that they had a bed opening up on February 10th. And I looked, I said straight up to her, I said, ma’am, I don’t know if I will be here February 10th. I said, it’s getting unbearable.
I am afraid that I’m gonna regretfully do something to end my life. And she said, okay. Let me call you right back. They called me back and I was in the next day I went, or that was a Sunday that we were talking about it. And I went in Monday morning on January 31st. So I, you get there. It’s weird at first, cuz you’re in quarantine just because of COVID protocols.
You take a nasal swab and you go in and you go in this room and just talk about everything that’s happened. In your whole life, your medical issues, your traumas, everything that’s going on. Why you’re there? This is
Stack: to, this is a two, a an intake specialist or?
Matt: Absolutely. Okay. So the, it was a nurse that was my intake specialist that went through my medical history.
Did my vitals, did my mental health history did an exam. And then I was sent out to a little station house it’s shaped like a firehouse. It makes you feel at home while you’re there with four other people that were just getting there as well. That. and the way the station house is set up, you have a kitchen, the main area, which has recliners and a TV, and then you have bunk rooms.
So you actually have normal sleeping arrangements as well while you’re there, which I think really helped me a lot. I really enjoyed my roommates and my housemates as well. I was there. So the first 48 hours, you kinda sit in a recliner, meet people, you get on zoom and. You take some of the classes that they provide, and once you’re out, you move outta quarantine called a general pop micro you’re in jail.
And people there were so understanding and so loving. I was blown away, even on FaceTime and zoom. They said how much they loved us and that we mattered and they couldn’t wait to meet us when we got to the outside and I’m not lying. When we walked out, I gave about 20 hugs to people I’ve never met in my life.
That said that we’re here for you. I know this is a new experience and the first people I met outta quarantine, ironically were Freddie and Jason. That’s how I remember their name. They smirked because they were attached to the hip and they gave us the whole grand tour of the campus. We have the chow hall with the cafeteria.
We have a kitchen, they have a kitchen staff and a chef every day that cooks for us, make sure we have anything that we need meal wise. And then we have a gym. They actually have a very nice. Fitness gym that you can use at your expense whenever you’d like, they have the medical wing where the nurses are, where you get your med pass every day, where you get your vitals taken every day at seven 30 and seven 30.
And then once you walk down the hill, you have all the station houses. There were four of them all laid out the same and it was they circled around a courtyard and in the middle of a courtyard was like, you throw the Frisbee and knock. The stuff off the top of it, it was like hand jam. My hammock actually, which is really cool.
I spent a lot of time in that. So what’s a normal day. So the normal day I would wake up at about six 30. I like to still go to the gym. So me and my roommate went to the gym every day. After the gym, you go to get your vitals taken every morning from seven 30 to eight 30 were your vital times. So blood pressure respirations.
If you have any pain, how you’re feeling today, you fill out a questionnaire every day of how you’re doing. When your last bowel movement was, what’s your mood today? And from eight I’m sorry, from seven 30 to eight 30 was breakfast as well. So you go in, sit down, eat your breakfast, whatever they provide for the day.
And then from eight 30 to four 30 you’re in class. And these classes stemmed. Anger management to cognitive therapies, to trauma classes, suicidal classes. These classes were based for firefighters, how to function in a normal life outside of the center of excellence, baking us in air quotes normal. When we go back out, understanding how our brains work, understanding how to communicate was a big one for a lot of people that were in there, understanding what normal families, normal relationships.
And healthy habits were going out of there. You practice mindfulness every couple days, you learn about your moral compass and who to align yourself with and just how to make your life better for yourself starting within. And then we have classes on making habits classes on healthy coping mechanisms, coloring, walking, reading.
Just classes where we could relax and actually do stuff we enjoyed. And I actually picked up reading from the center of excellence, sketching coloring actually, or I was pretty good at it and I liked it. I’ve never seen 50 firefighters coloring in the same room together, but there you’ll have it probably all truck guys,
Stack: but that’s from a rescue
I think the truck guys were upset about the fans but it was really good to bond with these people. And rise through it together. The bonds you make outside of the classroom after four 30 were the best bonds that you could ever make in your life. The counseling was better after our individual counseling sessions and the classroom talking to your brothers and sisters, leaning on each other and just being there for each other and sharing experiences and helping each other through it was the best medicine that I had while I was there.
So how long were you. I was there for 41 days. I graduated on March 12th. Okay.
Stack: So March 12th comes March. What
Matt: do you do? Comes? So they have graduation ceremonies, Tuesdays and Thursdays, all your peers line up, they read nice stuff about you. They say nice things. You give a little speech and you get a challenge coin.
So once you get your coin or your patch, mark, the director of this place, who is an incredible human being shakes, your hand gives you a hug, tells you that you made it. The next day. If you can leave whenever you want. After that day, you can leave. Now throughout the whole time, it’s voluntary. You can leave whenever you, there is no one holding you there.
And that’s why people there treated you so well because we wanted to be there. And the people that actually work there, I’m sidetracking from getting out of there. No, you’re fine. Are all firefighter related? So someone in their family is a firefighter career firefighter volunteer, or they worked for at a fire department as.
So throughout your time there, you speak to a case manager and you actually schedule your appointments for when you get out. So we talked to my case manager, CRE we talked to Brenda, got some appointments, lined up, got some psychology or psychiatry appointments lined up for me as well. And after you go out, normally it’s a smooth transition.
I had a couple speed bumps coming out of there. I had to move apartments, figure out my life when I got out of there, unfortunately. And. But yeah, they set you up for success. When you leave there, you have all your appointments booked. You have a plan that is basically the handbook to your brain, your triggers, your safe place, who you can call if you’re feeling sad, or if you’re, if you need something who to call.
And it was good to give them my mom and my, the people in my life to say, okay, if I start doing this, you need to recognize it. Or when I’m happy, I feel like this when I’m angry or sad, I feel like this. And. Document has been so important to me getting out of there. So you leave and you’re always welcome to go back to visit.
And I haven’t been back unfortunately, but they set you up for success when you leave there for
Stack: 40 days, you’re in, you’re talking about yourself, you’re working through issues. Absolutely. You’re talking to a psychiatrist, psychologist both. Or is it either.
Matt: So we had psychiatry on site that would take care of any medications that we needed.
And then we also had clinicians, which were our individual therapies. Okay. So we went to individual therapists once a week, and we also had an option to do family zoom sessions with the therapist as well. So I did both of those while I was in there every week. What did you find out
Stack: about yourself?
Matt: I was diagnosed, so I was in there with PTSD, anxiety, depression. Binge eating. I had, I never thought I would have an eating disorder in my life. I had an eating disorder and also body dysmorphia. I hated the way I look, no matter what I looked like. So in there, I found out how to love myself. I found how to communicate.
I found how to love, how to show, love, how to accept love, and how to function. Normally, when I got out of there and how to apply it every day in my life,
Stack: one of the things that sticks with me. Is the fact that when we talked, one of the things different for you is you had nothing. Positive things to say about your fire department.
Absolutely. Why don’t you cover some of the things that makes Loudin county so progressive with mental health? Because I think it’s fascinating.
Matt: Absolutely. So Loudin county is a 4runner for mental health and wellness. Within the fire service. Loudin county has a whole branch in the department for wellness and mental health.
We have a mental health coordinator. We have a fitness coordinator, a wellness coordinator on. Monday through Friday or as needed. We have a wonderful peer support team of all of our peers, all of the people in the department and people that can help us. So we have a hotline, we call it any time. Someone picks up no matter what someone is always Manning it.
And they have a very good hold on. Getting people help. They’re always there. They one offer trauma counseling. They offer peer support, CISM after action stuff. they really take care of their firefighters in Laden county.
Stack: And you talked about the fact that you were there for 40 days. Did you exhaust all your leave?
How did they handle that
Matt: for you? I had to use no leave while I was there. Laden county has a benefit for their employees of a six week paid family leave. So I was able to use my F M L a leave and a couple trades to cover my whole time there. And I think the support and. The cooperation with the department made it so much easier for me to heal healthy.
Stack: Of course. Yeah. If you’re not fighting your department for the right to heal, you can absolutely. It opens you up to healing. It
Matt: sure does. They were very supportive of me going there. My brothers and sisters at work were so supportive. I received notes and letters and Snapchats and texts, or keep my head up to keep moving and that everything was taken care of at home.
My Lieutenant took care of the trades that I needed at. He took care of my leave stuff. He took care of everything while I was gone. And I’m very thankful for that.
Stack: It’s almost the perfect situation to have something like this happen to you. So that’s amazing. And it’s heartwarming to hear, how are you
Matt: doing today?
I’m doing great. I feel like a human being again. after getting out of there, I was able to put my communication skills and everything I’ve learned to test every single day. And I feel coming out of there. I’ve taken a 180 with my own life. I feel more driven. I have more clarity. I can con I can control my life better.
I have better.
I have better grasp on my life. I can focus better. There’s a whole bunch of things that has benefited me since I’ve been out of there that can’t
Stack: better than. Yeah. Obviously from where you felt the need to have to go to the center of excellence, to where you are today, that speaks volumes to what they did also speaks volumes to the work that you put in.
They facilitated it, but you put the work in. So that’s fantastic. And obviously I’m happy and hope the listeners are happy that here, how well you’re doing
Matt: today. Absolutely. And I wish everybody could go to that place. They are angels. They love you and they treat you well and they want you to be better and they want you.
Come out of there, the best version of yourself. And if you have to go there, that is the place to go. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be, don’t think it’s weak. Just do. It is the best decision you will ever make in your life. It’s investing in yourself for the rest of your life. I think
Stack: that’s the perfect spot to leave that discussion.
I think. Absolutely. I think that’s that’s the highest note we could end on. And so we’ll get to those follow or not the follow up, but these last two questions I always ask guests and the first one is about an everyday carry. And the reason I ask about it every day, Carrie. Exactly why this is titled the things we all carry.
We all carry something into a fire, into a call into real life. And then we carry something out. Obviously in most of these discussions, we talk about the scars that we carry out, the mental scars that we carry out from a call. What I want to know is that every day carry that one thing that makes you feel naked, that you, when you’re
Matt: without it, I have my center of excellence coin, or my fire station challenge coin with me at all times.
Stack: That’s a big one, but a lot of firefighters. So it. That’s one. I hear quite often when I talk to people, not just on the show, but outside of the show and outside of, in, in real life, put it that way. Absolutely. The second one is I want to know either a book, a person, a movie, a podcast, something you wanna suggest to people, something that will, you can pass it on, pay it forward.
Basically something that will benefit someone to
Matt: know about. Absolutely. I have two book suggestions that I found in the center of excellence, actually that has helped me understand. My mind with trauma and my life as well. It’s called the body keeps score. And then also it’s called, can’t hurt me by David Goggins.
Oh, David Goggins. He’s a crazy man. He is crazy. And it just talks about his life. He was dealt a horrible hand to begin with and he’s faced adversity his whole life. And it’s just his story of how he’s got up every day. Sees the day and has moved on. And every hurdle that comes in his way, he hops it.
He has, no regrets. He went through buds three times on a broken leg to try and make sure he would fulfill his dreams. So it just talks about never giving up and that there is hope and light at the end of the tunnel.
Stack: Talk a little bit about the body keeps a score because I it’s a book that I’m just into, I probably a hundred plus pages into it, but so I have an idea of what it is, but why don’t you talk a little bit about it?
Yeah. Cause I think it’s an important
Matt: book. So the body keeps score breaks down PTSD and trauma mind starting in the early phases of why. shell shock. Why these world war II veterans were coming back altered and they didn’t know why. So they started doing all these studies and they started actually figuring out why our brains and that the function was different from normal people.
You’re subjected to trauma every single day, over and over again. And it starts to actually change the makeup of your brain. And if you look at CT scans of brains, PTSD brains stuff. Isn’t lighting up normally on a brain that has suffered trauma. And it just talks about how your brain functions, the tests that they did.
And I’m actually, I’m still reading it as well. It’s a pretty good read and it’s long. So I haven’t finished it yet, but I highly recommend to.
Stack: Yeah, it’s a good book so far. I also am recommending it to people as I talk to people. And I think you’re the third person that I’ve had on that has recommended the body keeps the score.
So I think it’s a wonderful choice, man. That was a great conversation. I appreciate it. Thanks for coming down. Thanks for making the drive down and visiting and talking and being so open. And like I said, I’m just happy to hear that it’s, you’re here on this positive note and you’re moving forward. I think it’s fantastic.
So thank you very much.
Matt: Yep. Thank you for having me. I appreciate.