Former Petaluma paramedic rescues first responders

When doctors discovered a tumor on Susan Farren’s kidney in 2016, just days before her divorce from a Petaluma fire captain became final, she knew it was time for a prodigious change.

She’s seen a lot in her 33 years as a paramedic. She witnessed a suicide while on duty. She survived cancer. She watched her 23-year marriage crumble under the pressures perpetuated by the oft-ignored stresses of their shared occupation. She’s had more colleagues kill themselves than have died of natural causes. She’s struggled with her own demons and seen fellow first responders slip into isolation, substance abuse and depression.

It wasn’t easy to face those traumas, she said, and she became adept at compartmentalizing them.

“You’re doing the opposite of what your body tells you to do – instinctively you’d cry when you see a horrifying event, but we train ourselves to suppress,” she said. “We train to be firefighters, we train to be paramedics, we train to be police officers, but no one trains us how to handle all this emotion. What do I do before I get on the call? Don’t tell me how to deal with this after the event. Why doesn’t someone teach me what do before the event? Give me something to save myself.”

The 54-year-old mother of five plans to revolutionize the way her sector operators. She brings insight as an author and public speaker coupled with decades of experience to her mission. After working as a paramedic, she shifted focus to training paramedics and EMTs before moving to clinical management, a role where she had oversight of paramedic education, training and mentorship. She worked for several years at the Petaluma Fire Department, where her ex-husband is still employed.

Now, she’s in remission, she’s learned self-care, and she wants to help teach others how to be healthy both on and off the job. She’s started by coaching first responders on a weekly basis, promoting self-care, a mission that’s segued into a higher calling: creating and operating what she described as a first-of-its-kind resiliency center for first responders.

“I did anything I could figure out to heal my own body,” she said. “I told my surgeon that short of setting baby pandas on fire on my stomach, I was willing to do anything to get well. And so the meditation, the yoga, the acupuncture and the Pilates, all those things slowly turned around and I realized, this is self-care. All of a sudden, I was taking time to be alone and listen to the voice in my head that had scared me my whole life. I was able to stop and look at the way I had grown up and why I was drawn to the industry.”

Historically, care for first responders dealing with post-traumatic stress injuries has been reactive, she said. When she first sought to understand how and why, she began to dig into the issues that plagued emergency personnel. She didn’t like what she learned.

On average, first responders have shorter life expectancies than civilians. They get divorced at high rates, adultery and addiction are prevalent and they run a high risk of committing suicide. What’s worse, she said, is that many don’t have the tools they need to deal with trauma, forcing them to become increasingly secluded. As some first responders numb themselves to the stress of their occupations, they turn to risky behavior to recreate the rush they once felt while responding to calls, she said.

“(If) your child is hit by a car out front of your house, you don’t really want a paramedic to break down weeping on an event – you want us to stay strong,” she said. “Letting your guard down on an event can make you vulnerable, so sometimes it’s just easier to just keep the wall up.”

This year, she’s created a nonprofit, First Responder Resiliency Inc., and is beginning her quest with an event for first responders from June 29 to July 1 in Sonoma. The conference will feature nationally-recognized speakers that will address the neuroscience behind stress and ways to promote mental, physical and emotional wellbeing, she said.

“I hope they walk out of the conference saying ‘oh my god, I had no idea I could save myself and not just others,’” she said.

Within the next year, she hopes to began to build the resiliency center for first responders in Santa Rosa. It would be staffed solely be emergency services professionals who would provide wraparound care, with programs including physical fitness, peer counseling, mindfulness training and nature spaces as well as a nutritional bar.

“It’s all positive – it’s filling their minds and hearts with things that are supportive to their systems to allow them to reintegrate home into their families with some wellness intact so they’re not just coming in off a 48-hour shift completely burned out and trying to walk in the door and become a husband and a father or a mother and a wife or a child to an elderly parent,” she said.

She’s hoping to staff the center with about 12 to 15 retired first responders, helping those who spent their lives rescuing others find a new purpose. She sold her home for seed money and is building a team. While she doesn’t have a space yet, she’s hoping to raise $500,000 to actuate her dreams.

She hopes the center will be a place of refuge and will set a new standard for the industry.

“Once we can get that center off the ground, not to be hokey to say … but build it and they will come,” she said. “I think once people see the value in helping their loved ones and friends and family with coping with the stress of what they do on a regular basis, this will become the new norm.”

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