This is a story I’ve told close friends a dozen times. Feel free to skip this article if you’ve heard it. For everyone else. Enjoy the following tale.
I moved to Philadelphia in 2012, unemployed and looking for a change. I applied for a position as a Philadelphia Fire Fighter. Sending in an application only puts you on a waiting list as there are literally thousands of people who apply. After sending in my information I promptly received a response saying
12/6/12 – “We received your request and you are now in our database. When the application period opens, we will notify you …”
The next piece of communication I received states there is a test upcoming with a 100 plus page packet of information to study from. I have three months to take the ultimate test to determine if I qualify. Bonus points are awarded for – being a volunteer fire fighter (nope), being a military veteran (nope), being an EMT (damn). I have nothing to help my overall score.
The test was held in a school not far from me. There were at least a thousand people that showed up and completely filled every classroom. This felt like a make or break moment for me. After the test was over I felt pretty good. I received my scores pretty quickly. 100%! Thrilled, I’m thinking I’m in without a doubt. Any day now I’ll get a letter in the mail to tell what the next steps are. I waited and waited… and waited, and waited. Eventually I forgot that I even applied because a full 2 years went by before I finally heard back!
4/28/15 – “The Fire Department is initiating the hiring process for the 1st Firefighter class. Your name has been reached for certification as a potential candidate.”
This is it! It’s happening. I go to the orientation. This is no college orientation where they show you around and convince you to attend. This was meant to strike fear in the soul of anyone who dared apply for this position. They wanted to weed out anyone who had even the slightest concern about diving into a burning building, participating in an intensive boot camp, or accepting that you are just a number in a sea of potential cadets. This had no effect on me. I was ready for it. The idea of a boot camp was exciting to me. The idea of being a life saving moment is someone else’s life was a dream. When do we start!?
6/6/15 – “I am happy to inform you that you are being offered a conditional appointment to the position of Firefighter with the Philadelphia Fire Department.”
Whoa! There we go. Within this letter are the dates for me to get my gear fitting and when to get a physical performed by the city’s physician. Oh no, I have a vacation planned and paid for that overlaps with the gear fitting. I can’t make it. Nothing I can do. I send out 3 emails of the next few days with no response… I’m sweating. With no choice, I leave for vacation without a response thinking I have just lost this opportunity I’ve been waiting over 2 years for. (Spoiler: From the title of this article you know I got the spot. But, this scare happens a few more times throughout this story.)
6/28/15 – “YOU ARE TO REPORT TO THE SAFETY OFFICE, LOCATED AT THE PHILADELPHIA FIRE ACADEMY, 5200 PENNYPACK STREET & STATE ROAD, TO BE FITTED FOR BUNKER GEAR ON:
SCHEDULED DATE: 6/29/2015″
It was cold, it had not other information, it was only one day’s notice with no option to reschedule. I was thrilled to get it. I don’t even remember what I did with work. I received this email on a Sunday afternoon, the fitting was the next day on Monday. All I remember is, I went to the fitting.
Next came the first day expectations letter. This took some time to come in. About 5 months later to be exact. (If you’re doing the math we’re at about 3 years in.) The expectations were as follows.
11/5/15 – “The ability: to run 1 1/2 mile, to do pushups nonstop for two minutes, to do sit-ups nonstop for two minutes,, to do pull-ups nonstop for one minute.”
If you’re like me. You saw this list and thought – I could run that, pushups and sit-ups are hard but that’s doable. PULL-UPS NONSTOP FOR ONE MINUTE!! ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND!? Well, I started training. Everyday. I still had no idea when the academy was going to start. I’m just busy running hills, lifting, swimming and trying to meet these crazy first day expectations.
11/29/15 – I make the worst mistake of my life. I still have thoughts of what if. I go to a Ninja Warrior gym. I’m there for about 10 minutes and decide to climb the warped wall. I’m feeling really good. I’ve been training pretty hard for the entire month. Easily, I’m in the best shape of my life. I make it to the top, no problem. Not noticing any stairs to get back down, I decide to slide down the front of the wall. At the bottom my foot get stuck underneath me, twists back way too far and POP! My foot swells like a water balloon. It’s off the ER. After a number of MRI’s, scans and Dr visits it’s confirmed. I tore a ligament in my foot and need to get surgery. Once again. I feel like this is it. My 3 year journey to become a fire fighter is once again over.
Click here to view photos of my foot at the time. It’s a bruised swollen mess. Not a pretty sight.
11/2/15 – Surgery day. I leave the hospital with some new hardware in my foot. A plate and five screws. Along with a huge cast that weighs a ton. I’m hopped up on more meds than I’ve ever taken in my life.
Three days later the email I’ve been waiting for comes in from the Fire Department.
11/5/15 – “I am happy to inform you that you have been selected…”
The excitement is gone from my entire being. I have a hard time reading this one. But, I continue on to read the following line,
“You must report to the Philadelphia Fire Academy at 7:30 A. M. on January 9, 2016″
There’s no way. The cast is scheduled to come off on 12/17. Only three weeks before the first day! On top of that there was a major clause in the email that read, ‘if you are not able to participate you must contact HR within 5 days or your name will be removed indefinitely’. A lifetime ban if I am not able to participate. This was a killer clause. After being in a cast for a month and a half after intense surgery there’s no way I’ll be able to start running that soon. I’m down as low as I can be. I feel like there’s nothing I can do. I had to really toss around the idea of accepting that this was my only shot and it was going to slip away. After a few days of Maury and crushing depression over what I’ve done, I get a second wind. This could have been from all the meds I was on. But, I thought, ‘I can still do this’.
Thus began the intense training once again. Only this time I wasn’t able to stand. I made a punching bag out of a folded up blanket and would punch it repeatedly. Do leg lifts on my back to strengthen my abs. Push ups with my casted leg held in the air with only my good foot on the ground. Anything I could think of just to keep moving.
The day for the cast to come off was something I was really looking forward to. As soon as it comes off I almost break into tears. My leg is a toothpick.
All of my training over the past few months is for nothing. My leg has no strength whatsoever. The pain is still unreal and I am not even close to being able to put pressure on my foot. But, I still wanted to have something left that I could call a calf muscle. Either way, I’m excited to have it off. Now the realization about my job is truly setting in. I never told them that this opportunity is only weeks away. I’m still undecided if I should quit my steady pay check to go on this wild goose chase over something I probably will not be able to do. But is something I want more than anything else in the world.
Friday, December 18th. The day after my cast came off. Only three weeks from now the fire academy starts. I’m still not sure what to do with this job. I get called into an office with HR. I get laid off!! Those are excitement exclamation points! Everything is starting to come together again. I don’t need to quit, I can get unemployment, I can rehab and train full time for the next three weeks! Once again I feel, I can do this!
For the first week out of the cast I still have to use crutches because putting weight on my foot is impossible. I test myself by walking back and forth in my bedroom placing my foot on the ground with the lightest touch to build my tolerance to the pain. Then I transition to a cane and I feel confident enough to really workout harder. I start everyday with rehab, then off to the pool to swim for a solid hour. Back home for something to eat before I’m back at the gym to ride the bike for an hour. This continues for the next week and a half. I’m barely able to walk without the cane. Very short distances before I have to sit down because the pain is too much.
I did speak to my Dr. about the idea of joining the fire department so soon after surgery. She immediately said no way. I refused to back down and she accepted that I was going to try. So we scheduled a few more visits after the start of boot camp so she could check on my foot to make sure I didn’t completely destroy her work.
Only two days left before full out fire fighter boot camp starts. I am still hobbling around with my cane. Not a good sign. This is it. I get on the treadmill. In two days I have to run a mile and a half. I feel as though I have nothing to lose. I start at a slow walk, no big deal only a little limp. Then I start tapping away at that speed increase button until it hits 6mph (That’s a 10 minute mile. Not too shabby.) The limp I had in this moment was intense. It probably looked like I had a broken hip. I was grunting harder than anyone else in that Planet Fitness ever has. But, I was running! I ran and ran for what seemed like an eternity. It was only a few steps. That’s all I could take before I had to sit down in agonizing pain with the biggest smile of my face.
This is it. I go to boot camp with only a few steps of running under my belt. I wrapped my knee with an ace bandage because without it I don’t have to strength to keep my self standing for more than a few minutes. My ankle has another ace bandage on it because my calf muscle is non-existent at this point so running is totally impossible unaided. My leg is so weak that just walking tires me out, my foot is so sore that any amount of weight is torture. Crying on the inside, I stand in a line with 50 other cadets getting yelled at by the Philadelphia Fire Fighters. They don’t waste any time and make us run circles around the parking lot so they can size us up. After only taking 10 steps I already have one of them yelling at me “Are you injured cadet!?” Of course I quickly reply “NO SIR!” as I can barely keep myself upright while running and trying to hide my limp as much as possible. I’m not fooling anyone, they can see my pain just as easily as I can feel it and know something is wrong.
After I get home I unwrap my knee and ankle to allow the blood to flow back to my limb. My foot is swollen to a point of bursting and my calf, between the two ace bandages, is just as inflated. I’m a mess. The pain is only surpassed by my relief that the day is finally over and I get to lay down. I quickly eat something and fall into bed defeated. When the alarm goes off on the second day I wake up to a throbbing leg. Without delay I strap on the ace bandages and take off to boot camp day two. The days get harder and harder from here on out. Today is the day we run the full mile and a half. I find a nice place at the start in the center of the pack hoping the Lieutenants overseeing the run can’t see me. I start strong. The limp is noticeable and another cadet whispers asking if I’m ok. I’m more truthful with her as I say “Not at all, but I’m giving it everything I’ve got.” As the run continues the pack spreads out. To my surprise, I’m not in last. I look like a fish out of water but I’m still moving. Along the path there are additional Lieutenants watching us pass. Those are the moments I push as hard as possible to not only get away from them but to minimize my limp to the best of my abilities. I know they can still see it, but the don’t ask about it this time. Returning home is the same story as before, this time the swelling is even worse.
Day 3. I didn’t know it yet. This was going to be my last day as a fire fighter cadet. The day starts and I already have reservations on if I should even go. Standing is a chore no matter how tight I put that ace bandage on. I still force myself to go. Throughout the day we perform many of the same routines as the previous days. Running up and down stairs, carrying equipment, pushups on the pavement in the parking lot. Also, it’s January. It’s snowing outside and we’re not allowed to wear gloves. I can hold a plank all day, but the cold pavement numbs your hands to the point that they start to burn. At least it was better than standing. Then, another cadet referred to a Battalion Chief as a Captain. None of us knew the ranks very well at all. We’re all new here. But, that was all they needed to punish all of us. We were forced to go outside and run more than ever. Up and down 6 flights of stairs then around the entire complex. I lost count around the 5th time I did this. I thought I was going to have to stop and lay down admitting defeat. But every cadet who passed me cheered me on knowing I was weak link. Time and time again I was asked by the Lieutenants if I was injured. And time and time again I responded with a prominent “No Sir!”.
When I got home from this experience, I knew. That was about all I could take. I was in more pain then I’ve been in throughout this entire experience. I can’t even make it up the stairs in my house. I burn through ice packs and pain killers that night. In the morning, I can barely put my foot down. Even still, I put the blinders up, strap on the ace bandages, off to boot camp I go. Pushing the break pedal in the car is a struggle. I push down on my knee with my hand to lessen the pain of using any leg muscles. When in the parking lot you are allowed to walk. As soon as you cross the threshold into the complex you are required to start running. I cross the line, take one step into a jog and almost collapse to the ground. Done. I stop, accept the reality of what is happening and turn back to my car.
This experience ranks among the top 5 saddest moment of my life. Something I worked so hard for, so much time committed to, so much time waiting for, gone because of a single injury. I will never be a fire fighter in Philadelphia. I’ve been blacklisted because I was forced to resign. It’s policy, I’m not going to try and fight it. There is no doubt in my mind that disrupted the integrity of the hardware in my foot. I did get checked out, nothing seemed out of place according to the Dr. I don’t have any regrets about going for it. In fact, I’m glad I did. I now know what it really means to push yourself to the absolute limit when you really want something. I didn’t get it, but that doesn’t matter.
-PHLFit (David Buceta)