A 27-year-veteran firefighter with the Poudre Fire Authority in Colorado volunteered to be the “victim” during a confined-training scenario just before Thanksgiving.
By the time the training concluded, firefighter Jeff Gillespie had suffered catastrophic air deprivation … also known as vestibular dysfunction … when he was hanged by the safety harness intended to be his lifeline.
In the seven months since that confined space rescue training, investigators are attributing missteps that nearly killed Gillespie to failures of both communication and protocol, according to the Coloradoan. Those factors, combined with trainees’ unfamiliarity with a piece of rescue equipment used, prompted PFA officials to issue numerous policy changes meant to keep incidents like the one that injured Gillespie from happening again.
Changes have been made in an attempt to make sure this doesn’t happen to another firefighter in the future — or to anyone requiring a rescue. However for Gillespie, his future is filled with doctor appointments, sleepless nights, migraines and uncertainty on whether or not he’ll be able to fight another fire in his lifetime.
Today, the firefighter whose storied career with PFA includes high-profile disaster responses ranging from the 9/11 terror attacks in New York to the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins can’t sleep through the night. The Coloradoan reports even with earplugs and sensory-diminishing glasses, symptoms from vestibular dysfunction keep him from enjoying his daughter’s basketball games. As he put it, there’s a never-ending “traffic jam” in his brain, accompanied by double vision, splitting headaches and insomnia.
“My time frame is unknown. That’s pretty frustrating,” Gillespie, 58, told the Coloradoan earlier this month from the dimly lit kitchen in his Timnath home, his wife by his side. I want to go out on my own choice, not the choices other people made.”
TRAINING GONE WRONG
After donning bunker pants and a sweatshirt, Gillespie settled into a series of harnesses — the Coloradoan says he was already having difficulty breathing as he was lifted into place.
The Coloradoan reports as he was being raised, the ill-fitting body harness shifted upward, causing Gillespie’s head to move down and forward, placing his throat against two chest straps. That created a “choke point,” slowed his breathing and “depressed” blood flow through his carotid artery — the major vessel that supplies blood to the brain.
He stopped responding to the commands of his colleagues, according to the Coloradoan reports.
“Since (he) did not respond physically or verbally, the rescuers called for a ‘stop,’ and hauling efforts were immediately ceased,” investigators wrote. According to the Coloradoan, Crews lowered Gillespie and removed him from the harness before getting him medical treatment and transporting him to an ambulance.
A TOUGH, UNCERTAIN ROAD AHEAD
In a dark room the size of a large closet, the Coloradoan reports Gillespie plays what can only be described as an agonizing video game guaranteed to leave him frustrated and with a splitting headache.
The goal during Gillespie’s session at Fort Collins Family Eye Care is to use a controller to merge two projected photos of dinosaurs into one, even as green and blue lines — intentional distractions — dance on the walls around him. The exercise, part of his twice-a-week vision therapy regimen, is intended to retrain his brain to process visual information.
Dr. Jaclyn A. Munson likened the brain to the city of Denver for the Coloradoan.
When nerves are functioning properly, information flows unencumbered up and down Interstate 25. A crash can tie up one lane of traffic, and multiple wrecks can wreak havoc on vehicles — information — arriving in the brain. That’s exacerbated when different highways — nerves — are factored in, resulting in a perpetual “traffic jam” of information.
Gillespie’s injuries represent one of the more “extreme diagnoses” Munson has encountered, but she tells the Coloradoan she’s hopeful doctors can ease his constant traffic jam.
“We can retrain the eyes and brain to work better together,” she said.
More than anything, Gillespie is focused in his health and family.
He wants to be a dad to his two young children, ages 7 and 10.
He desperately needs a good night’s sleep.
According to the Coloradoan, Gillespie’s injury represents what might be considered a “near miss” in the world of workplace hazards. But given his uncertain prognosis and recurring, debilitating pain, he said he considers it more of a “direct hit.”
“I wish people could get in my brain and feel and see what I see. And feel how not good I feel,” he said. “I feel terrible. A lot.”
Gillespie has lived a storied life through selfless service, and it’s the fond memories of that service that keeps Gillespie hopeful he’ll return to work. He tells the Coloradoan that service is why he became a rescuer in the first place.
“You go to a person’s worst day and try to make sense out of chaos, give them help,” Gillespie tells the Coloradoan. “It’s like a fire. The window’s closing, you only have a little time before you can make a difference.”
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