Keeping up the superhero syndrome produces challenges for law enforcement.

Everyone dreamt of being a superhero when they were younger. Some of us still do. When I first became a police officer, the visions of grandeur encompassed my down time along with workouts and nutrition habits to bolster that perfect image I had of cops. I believed I could and would indeed save the world! The blue flame was attached to me in full force during those first few months, maybe even the first year.

Did the blue flame die out? Not completely, but it shifted in size and became a more manageable bonfire. Those things that influence us over our career life time change our personality. They are such interesting components to the transformation from rookie to veteran.

No matter how many times our duty only requires us to put a Band-Aid on things, we still want to make a difference. It’s in there. That nobility. That pride of Dudley Do-Right. Superhero Syndrome. I think in the hearts of many cops that reverie never fully dies, but maybe the world becomes a much smaller place and condenses to the locale where you serve. When we arrive on scene, we are expected to save the day. We want to meet those expectations. Is it too much?

As cops we sacrifice so much of ourselves to our department and community. We are fully aware of what the profession takes away from us. We aren’t the same person when we started. Some good. Some bad. Sometimes we don’t stop to think what the career has given back to us or how it has made us better. We are quick to point out the damage. Why is that so? Maybe because it becomes a big chunk in us as individuals on a 24/7 basis.

Those outside of law enforcement would easily justify psychological dysfunction in cops comes from being exposed to constant human suffering and watching the misery of others unfold in real-time. Surprisingly enough in the findings from all my research, we don’t recognize that as a problem. We think we handle those graphic images, events, sounds, sites, smells, and memories just fine. But do we?

We all have those moments which make us realize what life is all about. Some people call them “aha moments.” Those moments are where something just hits you for some reason or another. You think about what is important, what is not. Maybe those instances snap you out of the work funk you are in.

That Aha Moment

My department staffed us in one man cars with patrol teams of 10-12 working 12 hours shifts. Minimum staffing at that time was 7 with 6 large geographical areas to cover in a city with population of about 75,000. One winter Sunday night, it was like many others where we had one disaster after another:

The beginning of shift started with a fatal accident. The dispatcher sounded distraught as she relayed over the air the words of a daughter explaining her mother’s last breaths. Only, I believe it was what we called death gurgles as she was evidently deceased upon impact. That wasn’t an “aha moment” for me. It was a sad reminder of how fleeting life can be in just an instant of time.

It came later…

About 10:30 p.m. a call came in with another injury accident. I was the acting power shift (3:00 p.m.-3:00 a.m.) supervisor on duty along with the night sergeant because my sergeant was absent that day. The first unit on scene was a two man unit working a special assignment.

Coming from the middle of town, I was the number two car on scene. On approach, I observed automobile carnage (debris) stretched across the interstate for a 1/2 mile or better. A once PT cruiser looked like one of those new little smart cars. We didn’t even recognize what kind of car it was for the longest time.

Time stopped. Not because I was scared or panicked or that I didn’t know what to do. Because the moment grabbed me. First, as I ran up to the scene, I stopped about 5 feet away and monitored two colleagues whom I supervised render medical aid before EMS arrived on scene. Even though the first moments of the call were a short few minutes, it seems like hours.

One officer was holding c-spine on the first child on the side of the roadway. She was in a lot of pain, bleeding with unknown injuries. She was a hysterical child. He was literally holding a head with flailing legs.

Her mother was what we called “IN THE BLACK.” She was so far out of it we couldn’t do anything to stop her hysterics until she got strapped down on a gurney. She had been the driver and her daughters were the passengers in the vehicle.

Although I couldn’t blame her emotions, I couldn’t help her. I tried physically holding her back and working my communication magic with no avail. She just had to stand by and be crazy until more help arrived. It was all we could do.

I shifted my concern inside the car to a 5 year old pinned inside. She had been in the backseat. She was trapped. The position she was in and the car parts were compressing her chest. It was getting more critical by the second. I put my head in the back window and asked the officer if he was “Ok” or needed assistance.

Police officers work with each other all the time. When you are in that close proximity to people on a constant basis, you get to know them and how they react. I could tell by the look on his face he wasn’t leaving that position and he was very concerned for the child’s life state.

Yes, I already knew the answers to those questions. I asked only because if anyone has held c-spine for any length of time, even minutes, in an awkward position, you know it is taxing on your body. He was sweating profusely and it was 39 degrees. His body was already shaking from holding c-spine so long in that position but he had to continue to do so until firefighters cut her out of the car.

He nodded his head in affirmation. I watched as the little girl’s chest stopped moving. My eyes did not leave her as I observed her eyes started fluttering. Time stood still again. No noise. No movements. Just me, my buddy, and that little girl in the car. Everything else didn’t matter.

Tears were probably on the verge, but they didn’t come. But I saw them in the other officer’s eyes. But they quickly left. We both told her to stay with us, to wake up, to breathe. She did over and over again until firefighters extracted her from the car.

Finally they released the pressure and she sucked in a big breath, gasped, and her eyes flew wide open. This reaction startled us and took my partner off-guard, He said, “What? What’s wrong? What happened?”

Bless her heart. The little girl smiled at him and giggled. Then she said, “My butt hurts.” The firemen took her away to the ambulance. We wiped any tears away like it was sweat on our brows. Then we both breathed a big sigh of relief. We went on with the crash investigation. He might have even paid her a visit at the hospital later.

Sometimes junctures like that make you realize what this cop life is really all about. Those are the incidents in which you envision entering with hands on hips and your cape flowing. But we are just ordinary people.

That night reminded me that I needed to pay attention to myself and my well-being so I could have that superhero syndrome when the public and my peers needed it most. In the past, I had fluctuated in levels of health and as a detective I found myself at the better end of the box of donuts. When I was grateful for my strict adherence to a good program, it showed in my performance and in dire circumstances.

Consequently, it was also at some critical times I recognized I should eat better and stay on a stricter fitness regimen. Those are the moments it is too late. We should have done those healthy lifestyle changes before the major incidents where our mind and physical strength matter.

Superhero syndrome includes more than just that mental inflation and apparent readiness to save the world, but the absence of taking care of yourself. Perhaps we think we are invincible or strong enough. We all need to self-reflect and assess our wellness as a sort of checks and balances.

Make Choices for Top Performance

Why does it mean so much that police get healthy and stay on good routine maintenance? Not only does a healthy lifestyle make a difference in our mental and physical strength, it is a preventative measure to combatting compassion fatigue and police stressor impacts. Administrative pressures, organizational impartiality, fairness, perceptions, and various regulations also influence an officer’s state of mind, attitude, behavior, job satisfaction, and outputs.

Throughout my police career, I volunteered for two sleep studies which were conducted independent of my department but were research projects for a physician and another for university doctoral students. Without going into finite details, both research endeavors showed first responders are a mess with sleep disorders. So there you have it: we don’t eat, sleep, or exercise right. Plus the unique demands from all angles of the profession beat down upon the police on a daily basis.

We can handle it. Right? I would make an educated assumption that we endure and cope very well with the circumstances we face. But we can do better for ourselves. We often ignore basic life support mechanics because we are so focused on serving others. When we don that superhero cape, we should be in top form. Find a healthy lifestyle plan and stick to it. Not only will you feel and perform better, you can prevent future depression, medical illnesses, and metabolic syndromes.