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Her brother was a Hillsborough firefighter. Then he overdosed. What she hopes you learn from her hero.

Nick Perez participates in American Lung Association Fight for Air stair climb. Perez, who worked as a fire medic for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue, died of a drug overdose in 2016.
Published Feb. 21, 2018

Editor's note: This essay was written for the Tampa Bay Times by Dina Perez, the sister of Nick Perez, a Hillsborough County Fire Rescue employee who died in 2016 at age 27.

You see firefighters and first responders on TV and they look like superheroes. It looks like a movie. Tall buildings blazing and roaring with flames, powerful tools and equipment, impressive forceful blasts of water, uniforms like awesome costumes. It looks like another entertaining box-office hit, in our culture that can't seem to get enough of these glorified superhero movies.

What you don't see is the personal price the firefighters, first responders and medics pay; the personal sacrifices they make to rescue people and beloved pets as their homes burn down, to pull somebody from the wreckage of a terrible car accident, to save a life — even at the immediate or slow cost of their own lives.

TIMES INVESTIGATION: Hillsborough County Fire Rescue has a drug problem.

They work long hours. They don't get to sleep at night, as the need to respond to calls never stops. One firefighter described to me the urgency of responding to calls, that you could be taking a shower when the alarm goes off, and you don't even have time to dry off before you suit up. So you put all the gear on while you're soaking wet and go out and fight a fire in the middle of the night for hours, sweating and soaking through the suit. Then you get back to the station, and as soon as you take off the suit, another call comes in, and you have to put that smelly, soaking wet gear back on and do it all over again. This is something I hadn't realized before.

I heard another firefighter say even years after retirement, he can't sleep through the night, and his family knows never to turn the lights on when he is sleeping, because that immediate, visceral response to jump out of bed and gear up for an emergency response never left him.

It is very easy for us to take for granted this system of people who have prepared themselves exhaustively to be ready at a moment's notice. You may call 911 for a minor traffic accident, and first responders show up and manage the situation, and you might just be worried about how much your insurance will go up or how now you might be late to wherever you were going. But in reality, those first responders may have just come from a call where someone literally died in their arms, and they immediately have to move on to the next call without the privilege of time to process the emotional impact or trauma. This is what a real superhero is.

In my heart and the hearts of many others, my brother is one of those superheroes. Most grievously, he is also one that slowly lost his own life because his desire to help others was greater than his own personal health.

Ever since he was little, Nick always had a very nurturing side to his personality. My mom ran a child day care in our home for many years, and Nick used to love helping my mom take care of all the little kids. In retrospect, he was just a little kid himself, but he loved being my mom's helper in that way. He also had a fascination with fire at a very early age and would beg my grandparents to build fires in their fireplace, so he could throw things into the flames. Of course, being the cute little boy that he was, my grandparents couldn't say no. They would build the fires, even in the Florida heat, and he would sit in front of the fireplace sweating, mesmerized by the flames. After Nick graduated high school, I think it took him a couple of years to figure out a career he wanted, so when he said he wanted to be a firefighter, we all said, "Duh! That totally makes sense!"

Nick was so excited as he began his career as a firefighter and EMT. He would share stories, like the thrill of rappelling down a building for the first time in training. After the first real fire he fought, he came home and said: "Mom! They brought us free food while we were out there!" He texted pictures of himself holding little dogs he rescued, with oxygen masks on their tiny muzzles. One time, he was on the news fighting a fire, and he was in full gear, but you could see his name on the back of his uniform. We were all so excited and proud, and thought it was so cool. My mom printed out a screen capture and framed it.

There were also charitable events Nick helped out with, and I remember him feeling so happy because he got to deliver a bed to a little boy who didn't have one. Nick seemed to have found his true calling. While he was in the hospital, people told us over and over again how Nick excelled at his job, never complained and would always be one of the first people to volunteer.

TIMES INVESTIGATION: Does Hillsborough County do enough to help hurting firefighters and paramedics?

The dark side to all of this are the rescue calls that don't have a happy ending, the effects of which can compound and have a lasting impact on a person's psyche and physical well-being. In the short span of six years, the rate at which Nick aged physically, emotionally and mentally was considerable. In some ways, I would even use the word deteriorated. When I look at the last pictures of us taken together that Christmas, to me his eyes are unrecognizable. To me, he looks like a completely different person. A sad stranger.

Nick had a dark sense of humor, which I think he used to helped himself deal with a lot of the grim scenarios he faced at work. In the last several months of his life, there was a series of events that really devastated him, and I think sent him to rock bottom. He never talked about the bad stuff, but he began to open up and tell my mom about things he experienced that he was having a hard time dealing with, like the way a dead body felt when he had to remove it from a car accident.

Then one of his best childhood friends died from a rare form of cancer. In a couple of unrelated accidents, a couple of his close friends passed away that he coincidentally ended up being the first responder to those situations. He worked and worked on them to revive them, but ultimately, it was too late. He was beyond devastated. When he was driving the truck back from one of those calls, he was so upset that he accidentally rear-ended a police car.

He couldn't get over the fact that sometimes, there is nothing that can be done to save someone. He said, "I have all of this knowledge and training, I did everything I knew and I did everything right, but it wasn't enough." He was grappling with the losses, futility of life and feelings of being worthless because in the end, sometimes people still die. During that time, he also had a baby die in his arms, and he had to tell the mother that there was nothing that could save the child. He told my mom that was the worst thing he had ever experienced. My brother never got over these and some other similarly tragic events. They wore him down till the day he passed.

There were many good people who were trying to help Nick. He had some amazing mentors who loved him and a few who offered to help him relocate and make a change. When he was at rock bottom, I called him and told him to just leave everything behind and come live with me in North Carolina for awhile, to get away, make a change, try new things. But he didn't want to quit his job.

"I have to keep helping people. I WANT to help people," he told me. He was invested in it and really believed in the importance of it.

Eventually, he decided to move back in with my mom, and it seemed like he was really trying to turn things around. My mom said he was so excited and talked about plans to build her a fire pit in the back yard. I remember he posted a picture of our yard on Facebook and captioned it "Home Sweet Home." When I saw that post, my heart kind of skipped a beat, because I could feel a hope and an optimism for him that hadn't been there for a very long time. I picked out a paint color and gave my mom some money so that she could repaint his room for him before he moved back.

He started texting me memories and inside jokes from when were young. In middle school, on Friday nights, my mom would take my brother and I around to different fast-food restaurants, because we loved getting french fries from one place, burgers from another, tacos from yet another, and always PEZ candy for dessert. That was a fond memory, and he was really excited that he and my mom were going to be able to do that again.

Sadly, those new good memories were never made, as he passed away six weeks later.

When I said goodbye to him the last time before I left from my Christmas visit, I looked around his room at all the stuff he had yet to unpack. In fact, it seems like he didn't have a chance to unpack anything really, but hanging up was the painting of a black raven I had made for him several Christmases ago. I felt so special, knowing what it must have meant to him, that it would be one of only a few things he actually unpacked and put on the walls.

At the hospital, people filled the hallways and waiting room for days. We had requested close friends and family only, so I can only image that the hospital would have been otherwise overflowing with visitors.

At his memorial, I think close to a thousand people attended; we counted through the guest book afterward, because we were awestruck by the number of people who showed up to give support. There were people in the fire department who were unbelievably generous and kind, and really made the memorial an honorable tribute to my brother and his service to the community. We were so humbled and could not have made it through without their guidance and support.

I will never be able to express my gratitude enough and will never forget how they helped us through such a traumatic loss. I also want to express that same gratitude and thankfulness to every single person who supported me and my family through cards, posts, comments, donations, flowers, love, prayers and phone calls. The outpouring of love and support was truly unbelievable. Every bit of support we received, no matter how small, still continues to provide some comfort.

•••

You can look at an autopsy report or other official document, and in black and white, you see a list of substances - some a doctor prescribed for depression and anxiety, some self-medicated to numb the pain and feelings of worthlessness. People will jump to conclusions and say some of them are "good" drugs while others are "bad." That is completely missing the point. What you do not see in black and white is the depression, anxiety, loss, trauma and feelings of helplessness that compounded over the years, resulting in a terrible, life-ending accident. A final report is in no way the sum total of a person's life or deeds.

From a broader social and political perspective, I believe it is essential to carefully examine cases of drug use and the individual human beings and realize that they don't all automatically warrant "criminal" status or incarceration. Our society needs to provide better resources for rehabilitation. It is very easy for a person to be quick to judge or cast shame because they don't know the whole story. Especially people who are raised in a sheltered culture or live in a protective environment, it is easy to have the idea that only "bad guys" do drugs; evil ne'er-do-wells you see in the movies or on TV.

But the truth is, good people do drugs, too. Very sadly, it is a way to deal with the pain of life. It is a way to numb life's tragedies. I cannot fathom on any level, intellectually or emotionally, what it is like to witness first-hand, over and over again, the traumatic situations our first responders deal with on a daily basis. On top of that, not only to be a witness, but to have the immeasurable personal pressure and responsibility of knowing that one's knowledge, training and ability to act in those situations can literally be the difference between someone living or dying.

When you truly take the time to contemplate what our first responders go through, then you can sympathize and begin to understand the need for escape. Behind all of that protective gear are fragile human beings.

We need to notice the signs early enough to make a positive difference.

We have to help provide and build resources for those who are working so hard to save lives and protect our communities. If that means something as simple as higher taxes to help pay for treatment and rehabilitation programs, therapy and counseling, more paid time off or leaves of absence to recover mentally and emotionally, then it is a small contribution that we can each make to help another human being.

Furthermore, when you consider how their hourly wages are alarmingly low compared to the amount of personal threat and danger they put themselves in to protect us, it is possible that many do not have the financial resources to pay for treatment or counseling or time away, and so the issues go untreated.

WE must watch and listen for THEIR calls for help.

How can someone reach out for help if what they have to say makes you feel uncomfortable?

How can someone reach out if culture deems it "taboo"?

How can someone reach out if society deems it "criminal"?

How can someone reach out for help if they have already been shut out?

WE have to encourage open and supportive dialogue otherwise WE are turning our backs on our greatest HEROES.

Be open. Have sympathy. Have compassion.

DO NOT TURN YOUR BACK.

After losing my brother, I feel like I will never truly experience happiness again.

Every day and every night, I continue to fight grief, pain, sadness, anger, frustration, anxiety, shock, confusion and intense emotions I don't even believe words exist to describe.

I wish I could have helped him. I would change anything to SAVE him, so that he could live those better moments that were waiting just around the corner.

But for Nick, it is too late.

I wish he could see how many people he left behind who love him and miss him.

The one thing that is bringing me a tiny sliver of peace for the first time since he passed is that hopefully what I have said will reach someone who needs help or who has the courage to help someone else.

It's what Nick would have done.

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