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First-Responder Memoirs

Issue 278

Chrissy Warren became a firefighter and Britney Daniels, a registered nurse and their memoirs about their occupational choices will leave you shaking your head both in gratitude and grief.  

Eleanor J. Bader Mar 23, 2023

Most of us spend at least four decades in the workforce, and if we’re lucky, we get to do something that not only pays the bills but that we find gratifying.

Britney Daniels

For Britney Daniels and Christy Warren, gratification comes from helping others: Warren became a firefighter, Daniels a registered nurse, and their memoirs about these occupational choices will leave you shaking your head in both gratitude and grief.   

In Journal of a Black Queer Nurse, Britney Daniels addresses the many ways that racism has played — and continues to play — a role in her personal and professional life.  She’s a keen observer, and her description of patients who fall through cracks created by classism, homophobia, racism, sexism, transphobia and xenophobia is riveting. What’s more, her outrage is palpable, strengthened by examples of the disregard patients and staff of color routinely experience. 

This makes Journal both an indictment of the healthcare industry and a deep dive into the many manifestations of medical racism. Daniels’ makes clear that she is also poking a finger in the eyes of those who doubted her intellectual mettle as she came of age. It’s a tale of prideful ascension, part personal chronicle and part political treatise.

As a young woman, her desire was straightforward: “I wanted to take care of all types of patient populations,” she writes. “I wanted to care for older and younger patients; I wanted experience with every type of disease and help heal people from all walks of life.”

While hindsight may render this naïve, her goals pushed Daniels toward emergency medicine and, for a time, she worked as a travel nurse, taking short-term positions throughout the United States. In virtually every hospital that employed her — whether in New Jersey, Illinois, or California — she saw blatant malpractice and disregard for patient well-being. Furthermore, Journal bears witness to homeless individuals and elders whose complaints were cavalierly ignored. Twice, Daniels writes, she gave patients clothing she had stored in her car so they would not be discharged in hospital gowns. It’s a stunning illustration of her colleagues’ lack of compassion.

Daniels herself has been a frequent target of derision, and the book is a testament to the overt racism that she’s experienced from coworkers and patients.  

It’s enraging.

That said, conventional wisdom tells us that living well is the best revenge, and that’s where Daniels soars. She is now pursuing a Doctorate of Nursing Practice and hopes to work with community members to collectively create better medical delivery. “I want you to walk through this house with me and tear down the walls, not paint them. I want to change the way people see Black and Brown people,” she writes.

They’re admittedly tall orders, but Daniels understands that an empathetic medical model is not only possible, it’s imperative, for patients and practitioners alike.          

Christy Warren’s motivations, while similar, followed a different trajectory. Her story began at the University of California-Davis where she was a pre-med student. Her reasoning, like Daniels’, was straightforward: A medical degree would give her, a white, working-class lesbian, respect and financial security.  

 The only problem was that she hated the required classes. Where, she asked herself, was the excitement of saving lives and healing the sick?

Thankfully for Warren, an Emergency Medical Technician course gave her entry into the action she craved. Not surprisingly, she reveled in the chaos of accidents, fires and calamities. Soon, however, she was again restless and upped the ante by studying to become a paramedic. It was 1991, and she recalls the training as a heady blend of textbook and hands-on learning. Once licensed, the work was intense, and Flash Point spares few details as it presents the mayhem Warren and her team tried to mitigate. Suffice it to say that some scenes will leave weak-stomached readers clutching their guts.

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

But despite their valiant efforts, Warren reports that some victims did not survive. “We walked away with nothing but death and emptiness,” Warren concludes. Still, she wanted more and subsequently enrolled in a firefighter-certification class.

A late 1990s stint with the Berkeley, California Fire Department taught her a stark lesson about gender: “As a female, weakness can’t be a fleeting thought,” she explains. “If a male firefighter goes down, 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, becoming tougher than her male peers.

Then, as the book’s subtitle indicates, the job’s demands caught up with her. By then it was 2012, and despite having been promoted to Captain, Warren 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 (PTSD). In addition, her knees and hips were showing the strain of two decades of heavy lifting and she became immobile, depressed, and anxious. 

Therapy and medication were ineffective until Warren found a residential treatment program for first responders, the West Coast Trauma Retreat. While at WCTR, she learned that PTSD is a “physical, biological brain injury” for which there are no miracle cures. 

Over time, however, she gained insight. “I poured myself into a job that entailed saving others,” she writes, “fixing their problems so I never had to face my own.” This included recognition that she had been sexually assaulted as a child.

Like Journal of a Black Queer Nurse, Flash Point is an intriguing and at times harrowing memoir that sheds light on jobs most of us would never consider doing. The toll that such work takes on physical and mental health is shocking. Additionally, Warren’s parsing of the wrangling required to access Worker’s Compensation zeroes in on the ways the application process can add to an applicant’s trauma. 

Taken together, these books offer a potent glimpse into the world of first responders. They’re awe-inspiring, eye-opening and deserve to be widely read.

Journal of a Black Queer Nurse
By Britney Daniels
Common Notions; 192 pages
May 9, 2023; Now available for pre-order

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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