Life Since Last July

18 Jun

Robin Pepper was driving down Highway 6 near Tillamook, Ore. when he saw Brittney Main’s car veer off the road and slam into the bank.

A certified paramedic, Pepper knew the drill – call 911 and then tend to the person inside of the wrecked vehicle. But his paramedic instinct contradicted with the post-traumatic stress disorder he has battled for nearly a year.

“In the past, I was able to (look at) the incident and say, ‘OK, yeah, it was a really bad incident,’ and pack it in a nice, neat box with other horrible calls I’ve been on,” Pepper says. “But last July, (a) call unpacked all those little boxes and it became overwhelming.”

Although the trauma from his past plagued his thoughts, Pepper knew he had to check on Main. He found her not breathing properly, and he was able to reopen her breathing passage before other EMTs arrived on the scene.

“I ended up being the first person (at the scene of the accident), and I didn’t want to be there,” Pepper says. “But my personal morals and ethics wouldn’t allow me to stand on the side of the road, call 911 and do nothing.”

Robin, Angeline and Breezy hiking to Cape Lookout

Pepper has not always been a paramedic, however.

With his father having served in the army, Pepper also joined in the military for several years.

“My dad had made a statement…that every man should serve his country for two years,” Pepper says. “So, I grew up with this idea my whole life that some point after I got out of high school, that I would give my country two years of service to fulfill my patriotic duty.”

After praying for guidance, Pepper pursued the army, scoring high enough on his recruitment test to go through training with the Rangers – a highly-trained special force unit of the army. He passed his training, which included preparing for counterinsurgency, special operations with other military forces, reconnaissance missions and hostage rescue. Pepper also says the Rangers train on every type of terrain, making them a “very versatile group” trained to fight in every environment.

“The nature that makes them (the Rangers) elite is the amount of time, … effort and energy they spend in training,” Pepper said. “That’s not to say they’re better than the Navy Seals or other special units – they’re just all different. … And they’re all affective in what they do in life.”

Pepper remained with the Rangers from 1986 to 1989, during which time he was able to travel to various countries. However, he never actually had to see combat.

“Fortunately while I was in there, there were no wars,” Pepper says. “My heart goes out to these boys who are out there and have to face that day in and day out.”

After he finished his military career, Pepper became a paramedic. He received his certification in Oregon in 1994, where he volunteered full-time for a year in downtown Portland, Ore. with Care Ambulance. He later held a paramedic position in the Washington County district for two years. Then, he served in Colorado in 1998 for seven months and in New Mexico for 18 months.

Pepper moved back to Oregon in 2000, working as paramedic in Coos Bay and Bay City. Finally, he transferred to Tillamook, where he worked for 11 years.

After spending almost 20 years in field, however, Pepper began to tire of the pressures of his job.

“For at least the better part of a year or so, when I went on really bad calls – very visually traumatic or emotionally traumatic calls – I just felt weary,” Pepper says. “Unfortunately, in this business it is not uncommon for people anywhere to fail to realize that they need to make a change or they need to seek help of some kind.”

Paramedics face three different types of stress, Pepper says: acute, delayed and cumulative. After years of witnessing traumatic events – sometimes three or more serious incidents during a 48-hour work shift – these different types of stress in Pepper’s life surfaced during what he described at the “perfect storm” of stress during a particular call in July 2011.

“The difference between that call and other calls I’d been on in the past is that on a grading scale for the different parts of the call you go on,” Pepper says. “There is mental stress, emotional stress and technical stress. That call was overwhelming off the scale in every category that it could be. And that’s what made it different from every other call I’ve been on.”

This particular call came about a year after a similar call Pepper and his EMT partner had responded to – a call so horrific that Pepper says he and his partner needed counseling immediately.

“This call was so bad, the injury so severe, that it took my partner and I between four and five hours to clean our ambulance,” Pepper says.

A year after this tragedy, Pepper went on another particularly gruesome call this past July in Nehalem, Ore. – and he knew afterward he had reached his limit of trauma he could face as a paramedic. It was the last call he ever took.

Since then, Pepper struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, which includes panic attacks and nightmares. Meeting regularly with two counselors, he says he is in the process of overcoming the disorder. However, Pepper’s doctors told him a full recovery could take years.

“The incident last Monday finally put last July’s accident into a perspective that I could grasp.” Pepper says. “Only now am I in a position to actually start dealing with that and putting it away. I’m almost a year into my weekly counseling, and I am just now beginning to see a pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel.”

PTSD is but one of the challenges in Pepper’s life since July 2011, however.

First, Pepper’s mother died in January 2012. Pepper then discovered during the middle of March his cancer had returned – for the second time, and after his bone marrow transplant in 2003. Several days after his doctors informed Pepper about his cancer, Pepper had a stint placed in his heart. In June, Pepper’s dog, Crockett, also died after rupturing his spleen in an accident.

Despite these situations, Pepper remains optimistic.

No longer a paramedic, Pepper says his life is open to new career pathways. He plans to take up creative pursuits, such as woodworking and locksmithing. He says he is drawn to creativity not only because he enjoys working with his hands but also for the therapy his finds in constructing things.

Ultimately, Peppers says his creative interests – along with the support from his wife, Angeline – could be the final key to resolving the issues from his past.

“What I do know is that there is a long road ahead,” Pepper says. “Ultimately, faith is going to get me through this.”

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One Response to “Life Since Last July”

  1. Val July 8, 2012 at 9:56 pm #

    I share your pain, Pepper.

    Your wife and your dog are beautiful.

    I hope your heart heals. You deserve it.

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