John Copeland – Becoming Vigilant After Being Invincible

Generally, people come into one another’s lives in some sort of calculated fashion, rarely is it by chance. Most of us don’t realize the significance of their presence until some kind of mutual hardship or simple personal endeavor is had. It’s difficult for me to relate to most people of my age because I have walked an unbeaten path, been lost, and found myself relatively early on. So most of my relationships are with men who have inspired me in some way or have simply just experienced life and matured from it. A very uncommon thread found in the tapestry of my friendships is the understanding and revelation of shock and death. The moment John Copeland’s heart stopped beating was the moment he became part of an even smaller group than he previously belonged to. This group of survivors is not an elite group nor is it a group that people should intentionally pursue. Rather it is fate that calls an individual and it’s their spirit’s choice to answer or decline. His spirit decided to answer the call and started a conversation with destiny.

Being born in the small fishing village of Seldovia, Alaska, Copeland grew up accustomed to harsh environments and relying on his own wit due to isolation from the outside world. At the age of 12 his father, a Vietnam War era Green Beret, told him they were moving to Texas, which he thought was just another island in the Kenai Peninsula. Hours later by plane he arrived on the southern end of the Great Plains to what he has called home ever since. On the brink of manhood, there wasn’t much thought to what he was going to pursue. The past 3 generations, including his brother, had served in the military. Thus, he raised his right hand, eyes fixated on the stars and stripes as he enlisted as a Forward Observer for the Marine Corps. This was during the early 80’s and America was in one of their longest stints of peacetime, so Copeland spent most of his career in a garrison environment. After detailing a 4,000 sqft warehouse multiple times only to be told after a slight glimpse by the Commander it still was not to standard, Cope was pushed to his limits. He decided the stagnation and lack of excitement would be the nail in the coffin for his military career.

Upon his arrival back to Texas his parents had moved without ever giving him any notice, thus he was left to find work and stability on his own. Without hesitation Cope was determined to become a U.S. Marshall, only to be swayed by the beauty of a blonde. After 3 weeks of meeting Sandra, Cope asked for her hand in marriage and 27 years later they have 3 kids to confirm their love. Realizing the life of a U.S. Marshall would require him to travel more than they would prefer he had to look at other avenues of employment. Randomly a buddy mentioned to him that Lewisville Fire Department (LFD) was testing and he thought, “why the hell not?” After a week of training, establishing a brotherhood and the new found lust for fire rescue Copeland had found his passion.

LFD put a ladder truck in service and had themselves a 6’3” 240lb American Indian workhorse riding backwards ready to perform vertical ventilation, search and rescue, or extrication as soon as tones would drop. The early days of the fire service, especially in Texas, these men’s mentality on the fire ground was like the Wild West; they were the saviors of their town and the fire was the enemy. By any means they would protect their people even if it warranted riskier methods and they were proud to do so. Distinctively, this created a culture of men who were fearless, thought they were invincible, and borderline egotistical – not in a presumptuous manner, rather they were filled with pride.

After spending 26 years seated behind a Captain, Copeland still has never had the urge to promote. He is content in his role, confident in his knowledge and loves coming to work every shift. Known for his strong personality and lack of sympathy for stupidity he has had to learn to regroup and re-zero his approach to the new wave of firefighters and leaders of the fire service. Subsequently being prescribed medicine to help lower his blood pressure Copeland realized he needed to take a holistic approach to his health – both mind and body. He began to work out more regularly, modify his eating habits and assess situations more attentively before overreacting. I have known Copeland for a little over 2 years and initially he comes off as an abrasive man who doesn’t take kindly to bullshit. He is fairly assertive in his day-to-day interactions; however, this is supposedly leaps and bounds better than he used to be.

I met him while I was going through North Central Texas College (NCTC) Fire Academy, as he was one of the main instructors. Although the other students had a harder time acclimating to his commanding presence, I was able to understand his demeanor relatively early on due to our common bond of military service. His teaching methods were more hands on and practical rather than the academic way by reading from a slideshow or textbook. Being new to the area, I hadn’t heard the stories of his past. Within a week a story was told that a Battalion Chief questioned his toughness, so he grabbed the Taser out of the Chief’s hand and proceeded to tase himself and told Chief to screw off. That’s his mentality, he doesn’t want to wear a white shirt for the administrative side of the fire service that declares a desk job, nor is he going to allow them to question his capabilities or heart. Unaware at the moment but one day his heart would be his first glimpse of weakness.

Passionately leading from the front in both the Fire Academy and his department, he is in charge of shaping future firefighters for the Dallas – Ft. Worth Metroplex. He instructs, trains, demonstrates, and works out with his students and rookies. It was springtime in the growing heat of Texas when he was conducting interval training with his students by running sprints, doing push-ups and squats. Even after personally doing hundreds of medical assessments and reports, it did not dawn on him that he was having a heart attack while experiencing the telltale symptoms. There was a sharp pain in his arm, breathing was progressively getting more difficult, a numbing sensation overwhelmed his extremities, all while he was trying to convince himself he was just getting old and to tough it out. He told me it was like his ego was trying to kill him. Fortunately there were experienced firefighter/paramedics on scene to relentlessly persuade him to go to the hospital.

The stars aligned in that moment, if had been newer paramedics there he would have blown them off and continued on. Furthermore, the closest hospital had not yet established their cardiac center; however, a team of cardiac experts from around the country were conducting training at Medical City Denton and that was only a 10 minute transport. Within a minute of arriving to the hospital Firefighter John Copeland’s heart failed him. In good hands, he was immediately attached to a defibrillator and the monitor advised giving him a shock. Still conscious, he grabbed a doctor to avoid being shocked, or at least have someone else feel the pain with him. Once his body was cleared from any grounding source an electric pulse was sent to his heart in attempt to regain a normal heart rhythm. When the monitor showed no signs of improvement compressions on his chest began, along with airway management.  That shock proceeded 10 more times until his heart was able to produce the iconic PQSRST heart wave across the screen.

This man had faced death countless times during his career, whether that was a patient or a close call on the fire ground. Fear never was an emotion attached to those experiences; he respected death and had now personally met him. This was the moment of realization that he was no longer invincible and now needing to proceed with some caution. Each morning he wakes up and a sense of gratitude conquers him and he’s ready to kick the day’s ass. While being on bed rest for roughly two months there was not much to occupy his mind other than thoughts of retirement and coming back stronger. He trained his mind and body to be deemed fit for duty faster than any person that his doctor had seen before. That sense of inadequacy reminded him he is not prepared to retire just yet. He still received the notifications on his phone anytime his crew went on a call, knowing roughly when they would get back to the house he would give them a call and ask for details.

That brief glimpse of what his life would be like after leaving the fire service was not one he is prepared to face. The title that’s stitched across his chest stating ‘firefighter’ is something too embedded in him that he is unwilling to cut seams with. Retired firefighters have come into all of our stations before and they know they’re welcomed anytime, however, deep down they know they’re not nearly as close to the brotherhood they once were. The moment a man retires from this service he is knowingly stepping away from the shift schedule and will only have one place to call a home until his days are done. Not that any of us want to leave this earth consumed by fire, there is something to be said for living and dying for what you believe in.

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