It was October 16, 1987 and the entire country was laser-focused on Midland, Texas, a town boasting an abundance of oil and mining experts . . . and an 18 month old child trapped 22 feet below the surface in an abandoned well that measured only eight inches across. For two days those experts had planned and then worked toward Jessica McClure’s rescue, drilling a parallel shaft 29 feet deep and then finally creating a connecting tunnel between the two. Robert O’Donnell, a lanky paramedic chosen for his slender build and long arms, descended into the newly drilled, 30 inch wide shaft then scooted on his back headfirst through the tunnel until he was two feet beneath Jessica. Using lubricating gel, he worked for over an hour to free her so he could bring her to the surface. Jessica, the child who had won the hearts of the nation as they watched her rescuers work feverously to save her, the child to whom they listened for two days as she cried and sang about nursery rhymes and Winnie the Pooh, survived the nearly tragic event and remembered nothing of it years later.
Robert O’Donnell did not fare so well. Although he was hailed a hero and placed in the media spotlight for years thereafter, he found it impossible to return to a “normal” life. His marriage crumbled, he lost his job due to an on-going battle with painkillers, and eventually came to realize the world had moved on—without him. In April of 1995, as he sat with his mother, watching the rescuers comb through what remained of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building after the Oklahoma City bombing, he traveled back in time to that day and those hours in the shaft. Turning to his mother, he said, “When those rescuers are through, they’re going to need lots of help. I don’t mean for a couple of days or weeks, but for years.” Four days later, Robert took a shotgun from the house, drove across the prairies of his family’s farm, and took his own life.
It was a tragic and unnecessary consequence of an event that seemed to have a happy ending. But for many who serve as first and last responders—firefighters, law enforcement officers, medical personnel . . . and yes, even funeral directors—there are too few happy endings and not enough emotional and mental support to help overcome the post-traumatic stress they endure. Those who responded to the twin towers on 9/11, those who raced to the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando or the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, those first on the scene at Sandy Hook and the Champlain Towers South in Surfside have all suffered for their bravery and their dedication in the face of mass fatality incidents —as have those who ran the ambulances and staffed the ERs in the long hours that followed . . . and those who consoled the survivors as they mourned their losses.
But it doesn’t have to be a mass fatality. Injury and/or death in any form or fashion can bring about those same feelings of helplessness and, eventually, hopelessness, especially if experienced again and again and again. It takes a very special individual to enter a profession that is guaranteed to bring not only rewards but also the mental and emotional stress that often leads to burnout . . . or far worse. And it isn’t just those individuals who suffer; their families are also affected.
If you know someone who must routinely face situations most of us cannot begin to imagine, please remember . . . it never hurts to ask if they’re okay. Knowing someone recognizes the struggle and the strength required to carry on may not be enough, but it’s certainly a start.
About the author: Lisa Shackelford Thomas is a fourth generation member of a family that’s been in funeral service since 1926. She has been employed at Shackelford Funeral Directors in Savannah, Tennessee for over 40 years and currently serves as the manager there. Any opinions expressed here are hers and hers alone, and may or may not reflect the opinions of other Shackelford family members or staff.