EMS trainees receive a special token at graduation

MAY 14, 2024

Some of Nick Fish’s memories as an active emergency responder still take his breath away. So, on top of preparing his Illinois Valley Community College students to save others, he wanted to offer them first aid for themselves.

After his Emergency Medical Services students completed their final hands-on clinical exam this spring, he gave each of them a badge of identity, unity and achievement called a Challenge Coin. The tradition originated in the military commemorating shared service, commitment and camaraderie and has been adopted by U.S. Presidents, emergency responders and businesses.

IVCC’s brass Challenge Coin resembles others in that one side features the emergency services program and the IVCC shield. But the flip side strays from tradition – it contains a phone number, a name and the invitation, “Sometimes you just gotta talk.”

Fish hopes the coin prompts conversations among crisis responders, reminds them to take care of their own mental health and supplies them with a resource to talk to, anonymously.

In the classroom, Fish relives his own active-duty experiences as he relates examples to students. “There have been times when I’ve had to pause the class and take a moment to gather my thoughts and deal with it -- again. I worry about that with our students,” some of whom are just out of high school with little to brace them for the impact of what they’ll encounter in their careers. Still others are volunteers in their units.

Daily trauma and stress can lead to mental health issues and burnout, aggravating a workforce already stretched thin by staff shortages. Classroom training concentrates on life-saving techniques for the moment rather than resiliency or coping skills for the aftermath, Fish said.

“We focus so much on providing care for everyone else we forget to take care of ourselves,” he added. He wants to banish the stigma that admission demeans the individual or dishonors the profession.

Decades ago, Dave Van Laar was an active duty EMT and firefighter who struggled. Now, as the LaSalle County Sheriff’s Department chaplain, he administers aid and comfort instead of CPR.

His latest role found him again at accident and fire scenes, watching crews battle inner demons after fires and road accidents. He had created tokens with his contact information, but after meeting Fish through presentations and activities, the two determined to produce a Challenge Coin jointly.

“Responders ... We're expected to fix it and walk away. We respond, clean up and go away. Some things you can't fix,” said Van Laar.

He’s also known as “Chappie,” which is the contact that appears on the coin. The chaplain title isn’t spiritual., he said. “No other title fits. Right now, crisis counselor, that’s what I do. A lot of it is just listening and referring people to other help. Just talking through something can be helpful -- just being there in those tough situations.”

Van Laar knows at least one deputy who has collected 40 or 50 Challenge Coins. Besides being a lifeline to help, he and Fish envision the IVCC coins reinforcing fellowship and alliance, becoming talismans, keepsakes, prized possessions – and reminders of that important peer support.

“Talking is a form of therapy. It’s important to be able to sit together after a call and to be OK with saying 'That messed with me.'" Fish said.

“We don’t control the outcomes,” Van Laar said. “I try to help first-responders understand their emotions are normal, they happen. It’s OK to have those emotions but to realize we can get through them.

“That’s something I didn’t have 40 years ago.”