Years later, Aurora firefighter battles PTSD
By Denise Crosby ~ email@example.com June 9, 2012 8:14PM
Joe Bartholomew winces as he recalls uncomfortable memories at accident scenes from his days as a firefighter during a therapy session to treat his post traumatic stress disorder on Thursday, March 22, 2012. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 11, 2012 6:00AM
It was Aug. 27, 2004, when the fire — and the controversy — ignited in the basement of a home in the 600 block of Palace Street on Aurora’s West Side.
Lt. Joseph Bartholomew, a 26-year veteran firefighter who had spent two decades with the Aurora Fire Department, was the first responder in Engine 1. When he and his two-man crew arrived, heavy smoke was already billowing out of the first and second floors of the home, with flames licking hungrily from the basement windows.
Engine 1’s job was search and rescue — they had no idea if people were in the house — and, in firefighter lingo, to “put the wet stuff on the red stuff” and get the damn fire out.
The flames did not look particularly menacing. But Bartholomew had been around long enough to know there’s no such thing as a routine fire. The beast can grow quickly ... doubling in size every minute.
The men first tried to get into the home through the side door off the driveway, but orders came down they were not to force the entry. Instead, the crew raced around to the back and came through the kitchen door. Dropping on all fours, the firefighters crawled through the smoke toward the basement. Feeling the sag of the floor, Bartholomew knew there was a good possibility it could collapse at any minute.
The three firefighters retreated from the house and attempted to get to the basement through the front door. But that route proved just as futile, so they went back outside and popped a basement window, dumping enough water on the fire so they could descend the stairs.
Once in the fiery pit, Bartholomew dropped to all fours. It was obvious the blaze, stretching across the top of the ceiling, was quickly spreading. The basement was filled with thick steam from the water hitting the flames; with so much black smoke, the lieutenant could not even see the beam of his flashlight in front of him. He shouted to his nozzle man to hold his breath for three seconds to cut off the noisy air supply and allow them to listen to what the fire was saying.
They could hear heavy crackling, like logs burning in a fireplace.
Suddenly, the smoke turned bright orange: a sure sign the ugly flames were coming down on top of them ... and the first indication they could be in trouble.
Bartholomew jumped on the radio and called for backup.
“Command from Engine 1. Command from Engine 1.”
There was no response. He tried again. And again.
Still unable to get feedback, he asked for “emergency traffic,” a call for help — any help — that was available to be sent their way.
As the fire descended, Bartholomew realized the situation was escalating out of control. Even the air he breathed from the tank felt like it was coming from an oven.
“We’re bailing!” he shouted, ordering his men up the stairs and out of the basement.
As the lieutenant began to ascend the steps, he felt a punch. Something hit him so hard he landed on his back. He rolled over and grabbed for the hose — his lifeline to safety.
He could not find it.
Suddenly, the alarm bells on his oxygen tank began blaring, signaling the air supply was dangerously low. Disoriented and desperate for a breath of clean air, Bartholomew crawled back into the fire. That’s when the panic he’d held at bay began its assault.
“Emergency traffic ... man down!” he shouted into his radio. “I need help ... I’m lost!”
His feet and legs felt like they were burning. He screamed for help. Sensing his calls were going unanswered, panic like he’d never felt before coursed through his body.
He lay on the floor, face down, and began belly crawling through the smoke now morphing from orange to black to bright red as it sucked up precious oxygen.
“God, take care of my wife and kids,” Bartholomew prayed, thinking of Liz and his two daughters; 22-year-old Heather, studying to become a teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing at MacMurray College in Jacksonville; and 20-year-old Brooke, studying psychology at Judson University in Elgin.
“Please let me die before I burn.”
Bartholomew forced himself to keep crawling. Stretching out his right hand, he located the hose. Euphoria was short-lived, however, as he quickly realized it lay in a bundle — totally useless as a tool in helping him escape the aggressive inferno.
The alarm vibrator on his mask went silent. He knew what that meant: He had exactly 10 breaths of air left.
Bartholomew concentrated on fighting panic as the already black world around him began to fog over. He reached out his hands. Fingers touched what he thought was a shelf, and he lay his body across it, as his mask, now completely void of air, sucked to his face,
I am dead, he thought. I am coming home, Lord.
He closed his eyes and prepared to meet his maker. He was at peace. It was time.
The shelf Bartholomew thought he had touched turned out to be the stairs he’d so frantically been seeking.
He did not feel the two arms that reached down.
The next thing the firefighter recalled, he was being dragged across the driveway of the house. Two police officers stripped the oxygen mask from his face. They ripped off his air pack, badly burning their hands from the heat of his coat.
In the ambulance he broke down in sobs. “Am I really alive?” he asked the paramedics.
They assured him he was OK, and wrapped their arms around him as he sucked in the cool oxygen from the breathing treatment.
Bartholomew was taken to Provena Mercy Center, where he called his wife and tried to sound calm. He had been at a working fire, he told her. “I got a little disoriented and they took me to the hospital.”
Liz arrived at Mercy, where a police officer greeted her. “Man, I would not want to do what your husband does,” he told her. “When we brought him in, he looked like a smoked turkey.”
The officer chuckled and she laughed. She didn’t ask her husband for any more details and he didn’t offer any.
Nor did he talk to his colleagues about the fire. Most were supportive. “Man, Joe, we’re so glad you are here,” they would tell him over and over again.
There’s an unspoken attitude among the brothers in the fire house. Getting hurt is a sign of weakness. Everyone bought into it, including Bartholomew, whose credo was simple: I’m Mr. Macho. I’m immortal. I’m a fireman.
But the embers of doubt began to smolder from deep within.
Bartholomew returned to work a couple of shifts later. That same month, his engine responded to a fire in an attic on Plum Street. Halfway up the stairs, he felt it again. Anxiety turning to panic. He retreated and called for more manpower.
“You’re on your own,” came the response.
That feeling of isolation only grew. He tried to suppress his feelings, but Bartholomew couldn’t let go of the voice in his head that whispered, You are going to die.
He tried to choke it out. Sometimes it would last only briefly; other times, longer.
At home, Liz could sense the change. Her normally good-natured husband was more irritable, short tempered, easily startled. He would moan in his sleep. Dreams would turn to nightmares.
That fall, during a training session in an old abandoned house on Eola Road, Bartholomew, crawling through the maze, became nauseous. His body went rigid; both arms, numb. He leaned over to his partner and told him he felt like he was going to throw up. Fearing a heart attack, his partner ripped off Bartholomew’s air pack, dragged him from the house and began administering oxygen, checking his pulse.
He was taken to Mercy, where after extensive testing, heart problems were ruled out. Still feeling numbness, Bartholomew underwent an MRI that revealed he’d tensed up so badly, he’d blown a disc in his neck.
A short time later, he and Liz were going through a car wash, when, out of the corner of her eyes, she saw her husband grip the steering wheel and stare ahead. Bartholomew was not watching soap suds gradually swirl over the windows of the car. Instead, his eyes saw smoke coming at him from all sides. He could even smell it.
He had to get out of the car before it trapped him in its fatal embrace.
That night, he broke down and told his wife about the fire on Palace Street. Releasing his feelings was like opening a floodgate. The next day he shared his thoughts with several firemen, who insisted he get help with the Employee Assistance Program. Within the first half-hour of the visit, the counselor told him it was the worst case of post traumatic stress disorder she’d ever seen. She could not treat him and recommended he go to a specialist.
A few days later he walked into the Batavia office of Dr. Brian Rooney — and for the past six years he’s gone once a week to deal with the PTSD.
After he healed from neck surgery for the blown disc, Joe Bartholomew returned to light duty while going through treatments. One of the things about PTSD is that it acts like Velcro, with other traumatic events from your past attaching to it, says Rooney. Therefore, in treating it, “you have to walk through everything in your past to deal with the present.”
Bartholomew is no longer a fireman. He says he was told he had six months to get over the PTSD or he could retire or be fired. When his lawyer notified the city he could not be fired, he claims management created a hostile work environment, hoping he would quit.
It was not the rank and file who treated him badly, he insists. In fact, their support was instrumental in helping him battle the condition. Instead, the Bartholomews blame management. “They say they never leave a soldier behind,” says Liz. “But I think they were trying to leave Joe on the field.”
In a string of legal battles, Bartholomew won his duty disability pension and received a settlement for his blown-out vertebra. But a third lawsuit was not filed in time, and therefore a judge denied his claim that Aurora passed him over for a promotion because he was on disability.
The city of Aurora does not dispute that the battalion chief at the scene of the fire that August day in 2004 had his radio on a different frequency. “Although he could not hear Mr. Bartholomew’s calls for assistance,” the city wrote in an e-mail response to this story, “the other firefighters on scene did hear them and came to his aid.”
The city categorically denies Bartholomew was met with a hostile work environment, and says this issue was never raised during the legal proceedings concerning his employment.
“The City of Aurora fully understands the dangers surrounding the fire fighting profession and is truly proud of our world-class fire department ... We are fully aware of the potential consequences of PTSD that all first responders encounter on a daily basis ” the e-mail read. “The City retains mental health professionals specially trained in PTSD counseling and support in response to critical incidents...
“This was truly an unfortunate situation but one we feel was resolved more than fairly to all parties involved.
Rooney believes the problem — in fire departments everywhere — is not so much the training and benefits, but a deeply entrenched “deal with it, dude” culture. “Things are inching along,” Rooney said of PTSD awareness. “But we’re not there yet. We need to talk about it much more.”
For that reason Liz Bartholomew has made it her mission over the last couple of years to meet with firefighters and paramedics across the Fox Valley, telling her husband’s story and encouraging them to not only recognize the signs of PTSD in themselves, but also their fellow firefighters.
She’s given presentations to North Aurora, Batavia and Geneva fire departments; and is working to set up sessions with Naperville and Montgomery. This month, she spoke in front of more than 60 employees with the Fox River Valley Fire Protection District that serves parts of South Elgin and St. Charles.
“Joe was a top of the line professional, involved in everything from fire investigations to hazardous materials to scuba diving. If this can happen to him, it can happen to anyone,” Fox River Valley Fire Chief Greg Benson said.
The past five to 10 years, Benson noted, has seen a focus on physical fitness and health in fire departments. “We need to put the same focus on the mental health side of this job. We need to create awareness so we can better take care of each other,” he said.
Benson said the feedback he’s received from this most recent Bartholomew presentation — which also focused on the toll PTSD takes on family — has been tremendously positive. Liz agreed, adding that firefighters will often approach her, or call her husband, after the sessions to talk privately about their own experiences.
Liz is encouraged. After speaking in Geneva, she overheard a young firefighter tell a buddy, “That PTSD is not gonna happen to me.”
A veteran also heard that comment and approached the rookie with a warning: “With that kind of attitude, son, you, more than anyone, need to listen to what was said.”
Liz left that room satisfied. The spark of awareness had been lit.