EXCERPT of Virus City from Big Shoulders Books
“Stephanie,” FIREFIGHTER & EMT
Interviewed by Maren Wilburn
Stephanie (not her real name) has been a firefighter and EMT for eleven years and has spent the time learning to remain as stress-free as possible.
When I talked with her at the beginning of 2021, Stephanie explained how the struggles of 2020 impacted her already hectic life as a mother and firefighter.
GIRL, COVID JUST PALES IN COMPARISON TO ME. I never stopped going to work. I didn’t quarantine because we couldn’t. There’s no such thing as firemen and policemen not coming to work. I hear “essential worker” and I’m thinking, Yeah, we’re doing our job. It never changed.
I speak for myself, but it was just another thing we had to deal with. It’s almost damn near impossible for us not to get [COVID], because if nine COVID patients call us, we’re going to nine COVID patients’ houses. You can take the measures, but it just is what it is. Girl, no mask will prevent COVID like that.
We all laugh about it, because we just feel like we do our job every time, no matter what’s out there. We laugh about this type of stuff because we understand the severity of the work we do. You could cry about it, you could moan, but you just need find a space where you could find joy. And hope the next call is not the last call. Work is work. We don’t get to say, “I’m not going to do that, or I’m not coming to work because I’m sick, or tired.” We don’t have that luxury. For me, only thing changed was now we need to be a little cleaner, which we needed to be anyway. We’ve already lost so many, you know? We’ve lost brothers and sisters on this job, that’s so real and eye opening.
Firemen have this ridiculous view on life. Sometimes it hurts us and sometimes it helps us, but we don’t really think about ourselves. We just think about other people.
So, we started wearing the masks more, because you don’t want to take it home. So, [with] Covid it wasn’t a huge adjustment other than just being compliant. Wear our masks, wash our hands, make sure we take certain precautions.
You’ve got to remember we go from zero to one hundred. We run into burning buildings. The things that people never see, we’ve seen. The things that people never experience. Death on such a great scale. Especially seeing so many young Black men getting killed.
I had to go seek counseling in my third year. The amount of death that we see on a daily basis is not normal for anybody, and the pressures of being a mother, not having an outlet for what was going on at work—it started to take a toll on my life, so I had to go see a professional. I’m an advocate for it because it saved my life.
For work, I get up in the morning at five so I can be there at six. Relief of the next guy is at seven, then roll call is at eight. You want to get your gear in service, hook up your mask, and make sure your tank is working, because that’s your lifeline. You never want to play with that. And then we go have coffee, and it’s time for us to start the day. Once you put yourself in service, anything can happen for your twenty-four hours. No matter what, we make those calls.
It’s super intense because you’re new, you don’t know much, and you don’t want to make a mistake. But you have a family. Every workday for the last eleven years, I’ve pretty much had the same guys except for the guys that got promoted or transferred out the house. Even though things are intense, you still have somebody you can depend on.
I don’t want to sound cliché-ish, but my life kind of prepared me for this. My upbringing in my life prepared me. I had to go to church because my lights were off. I was about to get evicted; I didn’t have a job. My baby daddy was horrible. I decided to go to church for the very first time at the New Year’s Eve Service. I knew I couldn’t be nowhere else because I didn’t have nothing else.
When I decided to go to the service, I just prayed: Lord, could He please give me a job that could take care of my kids, so I don’t have to ask nobody for nothing? Seven days later in the mail came a letter from the fire department. Like I said, my life was in shambles. And when my mother called me like, “You got a letter from the department. They asked you do you want a job?” It was all she wrote from that moment.
[I still had] obstacles to get there. The academy…it’s parallel military. It was majority white men. All I can remember was [thinking], They not getting this job back, baby. They are paying me fifty-five thousand dollars a year to walk through the door. I don’t know what I’m doing. I ain’t got a clue. I ain’t never seen none of this in my life. But baby, y’all not gone take this from me.
As much as we are together, we are divided sometimes. I navigated [politics] based on, I don’t care, I don’t want to hear this. We try not to bombard the firehouse with religion and politics, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. You just must stick up for yourself. If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.
You don’t have to engage in every conversation, don’t have to fight every battle. But some of them you do. Some things you do have to stand up for. Some things you do have to say, “That’s not right.” But when the bell rings, all bets are off. You’re family. When the bell rings, I don’t care if you Black, white, or pinstripe, everybody comes home.
I’ve never felt like my life was in danger at an incident because somebody wasn’t protecting me. I got one of the houses where they care about me. Everything they taught me, I adopted it and gave it to somebody else. But they didn’t play about me learning what I had to learn. For one, they didn’t want me to have them looking bad. They didn’t care who I was. Those are some of the best men I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve met some of the best men (next to my father) on this job. And I’ve met some of the worst ones too. It’s two-sided.
But it’s like anything else. If I went to work thinking everybody was against me, everybody would have probably been against me. But I didn’t go to work like that because I don’t take anything personally. Your problem with me is not my problem. Whatever you feel about me, you should probably deal with it with yourself because I don’t really care. That’s my approach to every day. For the most part, you make it work even with the racism, with the sexism, even with the ageism. You deal with it and then you go about your day.
I thank God every day, and I still have to pinch myself like, “Oh! I fight fires!” I get goosebumps. God, I’m at one of the best jobs in the world. And not because I get to see people at their worst or see destruction. It’s because females look at me like, “Damn, I could do that.” And I say, “You absolutely can.” That’s humbling to me. It’s much bigger than me.
It’s still a blessing to get off the rig and see little girls that look like you, and they are staring and you waving. I’m so big on representation. I follow the words “Being what I want to see,” so if I want to see more people helping us, then I got to start with myself.
I think that work has probably prepared me more for my personal life. Because I’m not hysterical when I see certain things, blood or gunshots. You have that small area of homes, where you have very nice homes. Go two blocks over, you can hear gun shots at any moment. It’s such a hodgepodge of people. And then you add COVID on top of that.
Your biggest concern is not to take [COVID] home to your family. My main goal was just making sure my kids stayed mentally healthy through this. But other than that, COVID didn’t really do nothing but add. It didn’t make us look at nothing different, just made us work harder. It never stopped for me; life never stopped. Having to deal with your personal stuff on top of work, the personal stuff supersedes.
My mother did get sick, but luckily, she made it through. She had double pneumonia in both her lungs, and then she had COVID as well. It was very scary. To have my mother in the hospital was one of those things where— that’s the unknown to me, if something happens to my mother. She’s my support system. Her and my dad been together for years, like they’re still together. So, we are a close family.
That’s the time where I display my emotions, when it’s something going on with my children or my parents. I think that’s when you see me shake, you know what I’m saying? That’s when you can see me being vulnerable. At work you don’t have the luxury.
I worked during the protests.20 They did tear up some stuff. It was probably the hardest day of my career simply because everything was on fire. So much was on fire. We didn’t have the resources to take care of it. Trucks don’t have water, but they were the only available bodies that we could send. [There] wasn’t nothing they could really do but just look at [the fires]. That day tested my will and my strength, but I wouldn’t have missed it. I would have still been there so I can still protect the people, still take care of people. If nothing else, when you pull up, you get to make sure it’s OK.
You know it takes a brave person to get out there and do what we do. Like get out there and put yourself out there on the front lines. I’ll run into a burning building first. I didn’t know anybody that got out there [to] protest. But I’m glad I was on this side of it to help pick up the pieces, help mitigate and put out the fires. If that was my contribution, then I’ll take that.
I’m just glad I was there to put them out. I don’t think [there’s] anything wrong with going out there and letting people know that you support a cause that’s real, that affects you on a daily basis. But as far as the destruction of property, I don’t agree with it.
Any of the rioting, the protesting, any of the people’s reasons, you got to look at the backlash of it with COVID added. And the most hurt are the elderly people that call us on a daily basis to pick them up off the floor, or take them up the stairs to their apartments, help them when they’re sick.
That, to me, is the hardest part. They still need certain things, and they don’t have it now. Thank you for opening the pharmacy back up, but I don’t want to see our elderly men and women having to struggle to go get medicine. But that’s the flip side of them doing what [the protesters] did. That’s what people are not seeing right now. They’re not seeing the aftereffects of what’s happening in these communities. There were already food deserts. There’s [people] hungry and starving.
So how do I complain about COVID? How do I complain about my issues that I can actually go fix, that I have the means to go fix? How do I complain when I go to work tomorrow to a senior citizen building, and I go into an apartment where somebody hasn’t eaten in days? Like how do I complain? Everything else to me pales in comparison when it comes to what you really see, what you really go through. That’s a real issue of COVID. Not me getting up, going to work, having to put this mask on every day. That’s nothing. I get paid for my job. I took an oath to do my job. But you want to talk about an issue with COVID, let’s talk about the communities. Let’s talk about the [fact that the] people really affected are the young and old. That’s the real issue to me.
20 After bystanders videotaped Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd until he lost consciousness and died, protests against police brutality broke out across the United States. In Chicago, protests began on May 29, 2020 and latest until June 7, 2020. Source: https:// www.chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ct-viz-george-floyd-protest-chicago-timeline-20200531-lfkd7p6ejbennfezhxk2u5kkmm-story.html Source: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ ct-george-floyd-chicago-protests-20200606-ee4mdvafvbfhfcpr7lrzfayypu-story.html
The interview above is an excerpt from Big Shoulders Books’ Virus City, a collection of interviews that capture the oral history of Chicagoans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Click the above cover for more info!
BIG SHOULDERS BOOKS and SLAG GLASS CITY are projects of the DePaul Publishing Institute.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 8 · November 2022
Header image— Electron Microscopic Image of a Coronavirus: Original Image Source— U.S. National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases
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