Blood, Guts and Trauma: An Unflinching Memoir Takes Us Inside a First Responder’s Life

Flash Point by Christy Warren is an intriguing and at times harrowing memoir that sheds light on jobs most of us would never consider doing.

Eleanor J. Bader Feb 20, 2023

When Christy Warren enrolled at the University of California-Davis, she was sure she wanted to be a doctor. After all, she reasoned, providing medical care would give her both respect and financial security, two things that were lacking in her childhood home.  

The only problem was that she found the required classes in biology and chemistry dull, even tedious. Where, she asked herself, was the excitement she anticipated from saving lives and healing the sick?

An Emergency Medical Technician course gave Warren entry into the action she craved. Not surprisingly, she reveled in the chaos of traffic accidents, house fires and other calamities. Soon, however, Warren again began to feel restless and quickly upped the ante by enrolling in a class to become a paramedic. It was 1991, and she recalls the training as a heady blend of textbook and hands-on learning, followed by 480 hours assisting a licensed paramedic. The work was intense, and Flash Point spares few details as it describes the mayhem she and her colleagues tried to mitigate. Suffice it to say that some of the scenes will leave weak-stomached readers clutching their guts.

“I worked 96-120 hours a week as did most of us,” she writes. “There were always extra shifts needing to be filled and I could not get enough.”

But despite their most valiant efforts, Warren reports that some accident and fire victims did not survive. “We walked away with nothing but death and emptiness,” Warren concludes. Still, she wanted more and subsequently enrolled in an 18-week class to earn a Firefighter 1 certificate.

She reveled in the chaos of traffic accidents, house fires and other calamities.

Her first job, in 1997, was with the Moraga, California, fire department. She didn’t stay long, hating the suburban quiet, and when a position with the much busier Berkeley Fire Department opened up, she applied and was hired. One of her first lessons involved gender: “As a female firefighter, weakness can’t be a fleeting thought,” she explains. “If a male firefighter goes down in a fire, people will say and think, ’Wow, what a hero. He wasn’t afraid to put himself in harm’s way to get the job done.’ If a female firefighter goes down, these same people will think and say, ‘She should never have been there in the first place.’”

The double standard annoyed Warren but rather than confront it, she tried to out-macho the macho, being tougher, more cavalier and more physically fit than her male peers.

Then, as the book’s subtitle indicates, the job’s demands caught up with her and she fell apart. Hard. By then it was 2012, and despite having been promoted to captain, she began having flashbacks and experiencing relentless feelings of guilt over lives lost and mistakes made. She began drinking heavily. Doctors determined that she had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In addition, physical ailments — her knees and hips were showing the strain of two decades of heavy lifting — left her immobile, depressed and anxious. 

She considered herself a weakling. Therapy and medication were, for the most part, ineffective, at least until Warren found a week-long residential treatment program for first responders, the West Coast Trauma Retreat. While at WCTR, Warren learned that PTSD is a “physical, biological brain injury.” She also learned that not only are there no miracle cures for the disorder, but healing is rarely linear. 

That said, Warren notes that self-awareness is key in understanding how PTSD manifests and unfolds. In her case, recognition that “I poured myself into a job that entailed saving others, fixing their problems so I never had to face my own,” opened a window into earlier trauma, including being sexually assaulted as a child.

All told, Flash Point is an intriguing and at times harrowing memoir that both sheds light on jobs most of us would never consider doing and addresses the toll that such work takes on the physical and mental health of those who do it. And while I wished that the book had offered suggestions for how first responders might better process the inevitable grief that comes with fighting fires and dealing with horrific accidents, Warren’s personal example is potent. In addition, her parsing of the bureaucratic hurdles she needed to scale in order to access worker’s compensation is instructive, zeroing into the ways benefit programs can add to an applicant’s trauma. 

As a chronicler of personal and political resilience, Warren has created a paean to the difficult work done by all first responders. It’s eye-opening, even awe-inspiring.    

Flash Point: A Firefighter’s Journey Through PTSD
By Christy Warren, She Writes Press
June 20, 2023; Available for pre-order       

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