Beth McMullin never imagined that someday, she would be married to a firefighter.
“No, I never pictured it. I always pictured a suit and a briefcase. The typical 9 to 5 job,” she said.
Even when she met her husband on a blind date more than 15 years ago, the reality of becoming a first responder’s wife never really dawned on her.
“I was 20 years old when I met him. I married him when I was 21. I guess I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” she said.
But love clearly had other plans.
“It felt comfortable. It felt right. It was just great,” she McMullin said.
And now, the St. Charles County woman is learning all about the unexpected heartbreak that can come with that role.
“We keep going because we have to. I just try to be there for my boys and get them through the day,” she said, wiping tears away from her eyes.
McMullin is a mother of four and the widow of Sean McMullin, 46, a veteran firefighter and paramedic.
He spent more than 20 years protecting local communities like Webster Groves, Berkeley and West County.
“He really just enjoyed the medical side of it. He enjoyed sitting and talking one on one with the person in the back of the ambulance,” McMullin said.
She said she and her boys always knew his job meant there was a chance he wouldn’t come home.
“It was in the back of my mind, especially when we were on the phone with him and the tones would go off,” she explained.
But she just assumed it would be a bad fire or accident. McMullin admits she never considered mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I always just thought of the military when it came to that,” she said.
But toward the end of Sean’s life, she could see a different kind of fire consuming him.
“That same light wasn’t there,” she said, crying.
It was a fire deep inside of him that was much harder to put out.
She said, “He didn’t want anyone to know. He was just going to deal with it.”
On Saturday, September 24, 2016, McMullin was on duty for West County EMS and Fire’s station house #2 in Ballwin when he took his own life.
McMullin said, “I kept bringing it up to him that I thought he needed help, needed to talk to someone. He just kept saying he couldn’t miss work.”
Sean’s suicide ended a private battle with what Beth believes was both depression and PTSD brought on by horrific things he saw at work over and over again.
“One time he had run a call about a baby who stopped breathing. He came home and didn’t sleep that night,” McMullin said.
Nationally, PTSD is considered one of the most significant threats to public and firefighter safety.
It’s estimated 20% of firefighters and paramedics have the disorder, with half of them actually considering suicide.
“It adds up and so I think we are all starting to realize firefighters and first responders are killing themselves,” said former West County EMS and Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes.
Rhodes led the department at the time of McMullin’s death.
He said that tragic loss not only hit home, but solidified a problem within firehouse culture that was already on his radar.
“We don’t like to talk about things of weakness and vulnerability amongst our peers because we work with people who push things really hard,” Rhodes said.
So in recent weeks, West County EMS and Fire has hosted training classes for firefighters across the region.
The single goal is to better educate them about the signs and symptoms of PTSD, as well as other emotional dangers of the job.
“You learn pretty quickly not to look at the victim’s face. Whatever you can do, don’t look at the face,” Rhodes said.
He added that addressing this issue will be an uphill battle that’ll take a multi-faceted approach from fire and mental health professionals at all levels. Even then, he doesn’t know if it’ll ever be fully solved.
“I don’t think we’ll ever fix this because we’re human. But I think we need to have a very robust system that quickly recognizes that we’re human, that we do see this,” he explained.
As for McMullin, it’s too late to save her hero.
But she hopes his story will inspire other firefighters and first responders to get the help they need before it’s too late.
“As many lives as you have saved, you need to make sure you save your own. You need to talk,” she said.
One of the things Rhodes would like to see is PTSD included in the fire academy curriculum.
Currently, Oregon is the only state in the entire country with presumptive disability laws that cover PTSD treatment for firefighters/EMTs.
If you or someone you love is battling with this mental condition, here are a list of resources for you: