Mike Whitehead of Medic West wears many hats. Paramedic. Educator. Father. On the night of Oct. 1, 2017, he was getting ready to be a teacher. He was training a class of emergency medical technicians and was headed to bed early after prepping a test for the next day’s class.
Then he turned on the TV. As the first reports started hitting the air, Whitehead knew he had to head to work.
“Something just kind of hit me strange,” he said.
On his way to the station, his fears seemed to be confirmed when he received a page for any available off-duty personnel to report to to the station. By the time he arrived, it was “organized chaos,” something he called “a beautiful thing.” More than 100 ambulances would head to the scene that night, every single one in the valley.
“We drained ourselves of everything,” he said. “Everything that we had was out there. If it had wheels and could move, it was out there running calls.”
When he was on the scene, Whitehead worked as an emergency medical services liaison, routing the newest information to the emergency personnel who needed it. It meant he always had the latest body count, a tally that just kept going up.
“You just heard crews coming over the radio, saying what they had,” he said. “And you just thought to yourself, ‘oh my god, it’s just getting worse and getting worse and getting worse.'”
It was a night of contrasts, he says, of watching the darkness and death juxtaposed by the heroism of ordinary people and first responders alike.
Now, a year later, he says things have changed tremendously. He never sits with his back to a door, always keeping tabs on the nearest exits. More than that, he says he never realized what he had taken for granted.
“That night, one of my greatest regrets was not kissing my kids goodbye,” Whitehead said. “This is my 24th year doing this, and I have 24 years of a lot of bad memories. But this made me realize that I need to confront that.”
That confrontation with the realities of paramedic work is something he says many of the people he works with have had to come to grips with. Medic West now employs Mercy the therapy dog, who Whitehead says helps ground and balance the paramedics and EMTs.
Things have changed organizationally, too. Medic West now employs a team of tactical paramedics — medics who are trained to put on ballistic vests and helmets and head directly into dangerous situations. He says they have started going into schools and teaching kids how to stop heavy bleeding as part of the nationwide Stop the Bleed initiative, and that medics are working closer with police and fire departments to better coordinate information during emergencies like Oct. 1.
He says that emergency responders did well that night, but he also says there must be a different kind of preparation by police, fire and medicine going forward.
“It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of ‘when,'” Whitehead said. “Well, we’ve had our ‘when,’ and we’ve had our ‘when’ that we’ve known has been coming for very many years. Now the next question is, ‘when does it happen again?'”
Fifty-eight people died that night. Fifty-eight too many, Whitehead says. As a paramedic for more than two decades, he says he and his colleagues know they can’t save everybody. But they also know there’s going to be a “next time.”
“We just hope that we can do it better.”