IVCC’s EMS trainees receive a special token at graduation

Instructor gives graduates a Challenge Coin

When Illinois Valley Community College Emergency Medical Services graduates passed their final exam this spring, Program Coordinator Nick Fish passed out brass Challenge Coins as tokens of achievement and fellowship. But Fish (shown here with the coins in IVCC’s simulation lab) hopes the coins also present a lifeline to cope with a challenging profession.

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 said he hopes that 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,” Fish said. “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 lifesaving 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 [that] we forget to take care of ourselves,” Fish said.

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 La Salle County Sheriff’s Office’s 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 crashes. 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,” Van Laar said.

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,” Van Laar said. “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.”

One side of the coins features the Illinois Valley Community College and program logo and the flip side includes Chaplain Dave Van Laar’s contact information.
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