Story by Scott Hutchinson
Firefighters are a certain breed.
Those who don’t get the opportunity to meet in person the people who willingly head towards fire sometimes rely on Hollywood to provide a sense of familiarity with the brethren: icons of toughness like John Wayne in “Hellfighters,” Paul Newman in “Towering Inferno,” or Kurt Russell in “Backdraft.”
Such actors were selected purposefully, and you sense each took the opportunity to hang with real firefighters so they could portray them appropriately in film. Along with fortitude, there is another ubiquitous firefighting quality: plain-spokenness. One has the impression that a firefighter doesn’t feel the need to sugarcoat things, or beat around the bush. Seems like you’re getting the straight story when you speak to one of the brotherhood, and that makes sense.
First responders don’t really have the time to play games.
And on our end, there is an overriding expectation for first responders: they’ll be there when we need them.
When you meet firefighter Mitch Petersen, all the things that have been ingrained in you by Hollywood seem right on the money.
Petersen’s station radiated energy. There’s a sense of readiness reminiscent of sprinters in the blocks. Massive vehicles and the people in them were directed by a stentorian voice blasting forth from the loudspeaker, unintelligible to outsiders.
“We’ll have to move now,” Petersen stated quietly.
We came to visit Petersen because of his story, a story where a first responder needed some help of his own. Unfortunately, his initial experiences dealing with his health had little to do with any form of the word “responsiveness,” let alone in firefighting terms.
Over the course of a year and a half, Petersen’s health issues followed a decidedly downward trajectory. Numbness, mainly in the left arm, and some nagging shoulder pain came and went, increasing as time went on, both in intensity and frequency. Petersen went to the doctor, did physical therapy for a month, and things got a little better.
After a time, the symptoms returned. More testing was done, a check on possible tendonitis. Finally an MRI was done on his neck, which found an issue at C6-C7, the vertebrae towards the base of the cervical spine that provide structural support for the neck. The diagnosis was moderate herniation. Petersen described it another way.
“Pain, tingling, numbness, and weakness from the neck going down the shoulder and arm,” he said.
So Petersen went back to physical therapy, and got a little better. Until things got worse again.
Back to the doctor. Back to PT. Muscle relaxers. Bio Freeze. Ice. Heat. Home traction. More treatment routines. Varying degrees of effectiveness, but nothing that lasted.
Petersen got to the point where doing his job was painful enough that he asked one of the medical professionals he had been seeing a very pointed question: “Am I going to completely incapacitate myself doing something at work? Because we have life and death situations potentially staring us in the face at any time, and we have to be able to rely on one another.”
Her answer was no, so Petersen carried on, working 24- hour shifts, every other day for six days, then off for four. He spent days off trying to work through the numbness and the pain, preparing his mind and body for the duties he needed to successfully perform – for himself, his unit, for us – as a first responder.
Long story short, after about 18 months—and missing only a single day of work during this time—Petersen was at his wit’s end. As time away from work was devoted primarily to managing the pain so he could return to his next shift, family time and normal activities were being diminished (or ruined). At night his arms would go numb. The once active husband and father could no longer engage in beloved activities, playing with his children, walking the dog, fishing.
Those who know the kind of outdoor nut Petersen is understood the level of adversity he was facing if he no longer went fishing.
In May of 2018, Petersen repeated a longstanding trip out east to fish with some buddies, spending the eight-hour drive constantly seeking a position that did not result in extreme discomfort. He was seldom successful. A few weeks later, a drive to Door County proved unendurable.
Following another round of PT and the addition of chiropractic treatments, Petersen’s doctor said it was time for pain management. An epidural was OK’d and scheduled, but it was two and a half weeks out. Petersen, who over the course of a year and a half had become much worse, wasn’t sure if he could go that long without relief.
The first responder needed something more immediate. He mentioned his frustration to a co-worker who said, “Have you looked into that NOVO plan?”
The city Petersen works for had entered into a relationship with NOVO Health at the beginning of 2018 for medical services, and his co-worker — who already used NOVO services for an issue of his own — told Petersen how easy it was to get started.
“Just call ‘em up,” the co-worker said. “They’ve a got a coordinator that can answer questions and get you started right away.”
That day, Petersen called NOVO Health. The next day, a Friday, he received a call from Neuroscience Group, a NOVO Health spine care provider. An appointment was scheduled on the following Monday.
After his exam, Petersen’s epidural was scheduled, and he would get in sooner than the one he had originally been told would be weeks out. For Petersen, much of what was right about this was experiential.
“The responsiveness about my situation just seemed so calming and put me in a different space from where I had been for nearly two years,” he said. “This just had a different feel.”
The epidural, however, did not prove to be the answer. The numbness had improved, but the pain persisted. Petersen returned to Neuroscience Group to see Dr. Alexander Hawkins for a second opinion. As Petersen’s most recent MRI was a year old, the neurosurgeon scheduled a new test to see where Petersen was. The MRI revealed major herniation at C6-C7, which would require surgery.
Petersen would have his surgery at the Orthopedic & Sports Institute and spend one night at Recovery Inn, the attached skilled nursing facility for spine and joint replacement patients. Following surgery, Petersen could tell the difference immediately.
“The pain and numbness was gone,” said Petersen.
Two weeks later Petersen went to his follow up, where he was released for light-duty office work and inspections. Hawkins released him from work restrictions a month later, and Petersen was back to work at full duty exactly six weeks after surgery.
About 10 days after his surgery and just prior to his return to light-duty work, Petersen came in to the employee benefits meeting to voluntarily offer some insights on his experience with NOVO.
“I’m here to sing the praises of NOVO and the great things that happened for me,” he said. Before he could continue, the commanding voice boomed over the loudspeaker. Duty called; the first responders answered.
“I spoke to a much smaller group than I started with,” said Petersen. “But I’ve referred more people to NOVO and will continue to do so, because it’s just that good.”
Still feeling great – and ten pounds lighter – Petersen is back to doing the things he loves, minus the pain. He reflects on where he was just this past summer – not being able to go on excursions with the family, not making the trip to his parents’ land to bow hunt (the first time he hasn’t bow hunted since the age of 12), not fishing the bay because the drive was agony – and where he is today.
“The biggest thing I found was how much I had deteriorated, how far things had gone,” he said. “What normal had been wasn’t normal anymore.”
As the photographer and I took our leave, there was one final Hollywood-esque treatment of the fire station culture that is also spot-on: the camaraderie of the firefighting community. The connection these people have with one another runs deep, as it must. Passing firefighters acknowledged Petersen with a knowing glance, a tip of the hat (“it’s called a helmet”), a wink.
Petersen explained that the wink meant more than we knew.
“They saw me getting my picture taken,” Petersen said.
Apparently the ribbing was just beginning. A couple of buddies were already working up their superstar chants after seeing him in front of the camera, a price to be paid for Petersen looking every inch the actor we have seen portraying a firefighter. Only this guy is for real.
And he’ll be there when we need him.