Written by : Chris Libby

The Courage to Care

How everyday heroes are making the world a better place.

Nurse helping a female patient in an emergency room.

How everyday heroes are making the world a better place.

What does it take to be a hero? Do you have to be faster than a speeding bullet or more powerful than a locomotive? While having uncanny physical powers doesn’t hurt, according to Carol Pearson, Ph.D., author of The Hero Within and Awakening the Heroes Within, all you need to be a hero is the ability to believe in yourself and the courage to do the right thing at the right time. In fact, not jumping on those opportunities in life, such as applying for the job that you’ve always wanted or asking out that person you have admired, can leave you with regret, self-doubt and quite possibly depression.

“The heroic life is really based on the idea that you are here for a purpose and the purpose just isn’t for you, and you are going to be happier if you focus on that,” Carol says. “It doesn’t mean that you can’t thrive personally. In fact, very often when people are doing the thing that is most right for them, cosmically right for them, they thrive and do well. The artists paint great pictures that others relate to because they are coming from a place that is connected to the larger world.”

While first responders practice their courage daily, and soldiers perform great acts of valor out of circumstance and duty, everyday heroism is something we can all engage in to make the world a better place.

“Having courage is fundamental to living a happy life, because if you wimp out, life is going to get you,” Carol says. “It takes courage to be fully intimate with somebody. And to be seen fully and to fully commit to what you love.”

The word “hero” inspires visions of the Homeric champion who fights an epic battle or the daring adventurer who returns to change the world with what she has learned. But everyone has the power to live boldly. Carol points out that doctors save lives every day, and parents make great sacrifices to pave the way for their children.

“We need to stop just thinking ‘What can I get?’ and not see it as in conflict with one’s own good,” she says. “Very often we are most successful when we are doing not only the right thing for us, but what is good for others as well.”

You don’t have to have a Bruce Wayne-esque tragedy in your life to turn you into a caped crusader warding off evildoers at night. More often than not, having a healthy and safe upbringing will give you the confidence and trust in yourself to save someone who has fallen into a river or, at the very least, to rescue a neighbor’s kitten from a tree. While it is not always the case, working on strengths like altruism and bravery will give you the mettle to act when the moment is right. Even if you didn’t know you could, your dormant hero will rise to the occasion.

The Everyday Hero

Ronnie McCarroll has been a firefighter for more than two decades. Although he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after high school, he was clear on what he didn’t want to do, and that was follow the family legacy into construction.

With limited resources for college, he had to weigh his options closer to home. One of his high school football coaches happened to be a volunteer firefighter and often compared the firefighter atmosphere to that of a football team. Ronnie liked what he heard. He soon put himself through firefighter and emergency medical technician school and started testing for the fire department.

“I had to sit back and think about what I really wanted to do, and maybe something that coach said made me think ‘This is it,’” Ronnie says. “Now, looking back, I think it is the best choice

I could have ever made. I love the job, and it’s amazing and rewarding. I didn’t think about firefighters giving back, having a sense of duty to help. I never thought about those things until I got into the job.”

Now Ronnie is a fire captain at the Flower Mound Fire Department in Flower Mound, Texas, with 24 years on the job. He mentors young firefighters on how to handle dangerous situations. He instructs all of his firefighters to be compassionate and treat all people they encounter on calls as if they were family members. When someone calls 911, more likely than not, it is probably the worst day of his or her life.

“I don’t think you can be a good firefighter without [compassion,]” Ronnie says. “You have to constantly fight the urge to not become bitter and calloused. We get a lot of overdose calls where people aren’t happy with their lives. It is easy to sit back and say ‘I would do it this way,’ or ‘I wouldn’t live in this situation.’ For me, I think my compassion is too much sometimes, but I also believe that is what has helped me have a very positive career so far.”

Ronnie is passionate about his duty to his community. He is well aware of the risk involved in his line of work, though he never knows what will happen next.

“I have been in a couple situations where the thought crossed my mind that I might not get out of this, and I don’t think any of us truly know how we are going to act until we are in that situation,” he says. “But that is the commitment I have made to the people of Flower Mound where I serve. I think there have to be people like that in the world, there have to be people willing to sacrifice.”

It hasn’t always been an easy road, he says, and firefighters see things people shouldn’t see. He once had a call to a residence where a baby had died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. There was nothing anyone could do. After that, he volunteered for a critical stress-management class and learned that he had to start dealing with it.

“The good things that we do far outweigh the bad experiences,” Ronnie says. “To me that’s rewarding enough to keep plugging away.”               

The Sacrifice in Saving

Dr. Johnathon Berry grew up reading his dad’s Soldier of Fortune magazines and watching John Wayne in The Green Berets. His father served two tours in Vietnam and recounted stories about the Green Berets training and fighting alongside the Montagnards, the indigenous mountain people of that region. When the time came for John to figure out what he wanted to do with his life, the military was willing to pay for school, and he liked the idea of becoming the Special Forces soldier he so admired as a kid.

Through his training, he discovered a knack for medicine. Special Forces Green Beret medics are the go-to physicians for everything from stabilizing battle wounds to dentistry and even veterinary medicine. After three deployments to Afghanistan, he was all too familiar with providing life-saving care on the battlefield.

When his 20-year retirement mark in the military was approaching, he opted for medical school over the CIA, FBI or DEA, and eventually became an emergency room doctor. He now splits his time practicing at hospitals in Colorado and Texas. “Carrying a gun was something that I was good at at the time, but I didn’t want to make a career out of it,” John says. “As a father of two girls, it didn’t seem like a good option.”

His decision didn’t come without personal sacrifice. When he left Afghanistan in 2002 to take his medical school entrance exams, his friend and fellow Green Beret, Chris Speer, replaced him. Three weeks after the replacement, Chris died of a head injury from a grenade explosion. John was given the honor of escorting Chris’ body back to the United States. John says he can’t help but bear certain responsibility, and it is something he will never forget. “I like to think that God had a different purpose and plan for me.”

While his mission has changed and he is no longer risking his life to help others, he continues to save as many lives as he can. He attributes his character to his faith and a solid foundation. His grandparents raised him, instilling a strong sense of family and the responsibility to always look out for and care for others.

“I’ve always had a lot of empathy for people,” he says. “So being a natural caregiver, I always have the compassion to want to help people and to be able to feel and understand what my patients are going through.”

The Lady With a Lamp

Renee Thompson, DNP, RN, the author of Celebrate Nursing: Human by Birth, Hero by Choice, has been a nurse for 25 years. There isn’t much she hasn’t witnessed, felt or heard when it comes to healing the sick. She has done everything from bedside care to taking on executive leadership roles. She knows how important it is for nurses to embrace their heroism.

“[Nurses] have to be resilient,” Renee says. “I actually refer to it as hardiness. You have to go into to a workplace with the unpredictability that comes with health care, because you never know what you are going to get. And even when bad things happen, you have to be able to get back up the next day and go back in again.”

Now a CEO of her company, RT Connections in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Renee speaks publicly about and provides education on nursing culture. She feels that being heroic in her field is essential because it’s not only good for the patients but for fellow nurses and hospital staff as well.

“There is no way anyone in health care can take care of a person independently,” she explains. “If a person embraces their heroism and recognizes that everyone has value, then they are ready to deliver good, compassionate, effective health care. Everything that we do impacts the care that we can deliver to that patient.”

With the long hours, sore feet and bereavement that often accompanies nursing, Renee says all of that negativity can be remedied by being positive and compassionate, a beacon of light for someone who is in the darkest of hours.

“We have the opportunity to make a serious difference in the lives of other people, especially when they are at their worst,” she says. “There is no greater joy for a nurse than to hold a patient’s hand when they are going through something horrific and that patient comes back to you and says, ‘I wouldn’t have gotten through this without you.’ ”

Every nurse has a story like that. For Renee, hers involved a woman with head trauma from a motorcycle accident. The patient could not communicate, and her situation was bleak. Aside from her normal duties, Renee also painted the patient’s nails, shaved her legs and gave her pedicures. Eventually the patient stabilized and was moved to another wing of the hospital. 

A few months later, a woman who looked vaguely familiar was waiting for Renee at the nurse’s station.

“This woman said to me clearly and articulately, ‘I just wanted to thank you; my daughter told me how you took care of me, and there is no way I can repay you for that,’” Renee recalls. “She gave me the biggest hug, and I cried. It’s just the miracle of life. This was a woman who couldn’t even respond and now she can tell me ‘thank you’ in her own words. That’s what keeps you going. You live for those moments.”

How To Be a Hero

You don’t have to run into burning buildings, dodge enemy bullets or bring someone back to life to be more heroic. Researchers like Phil Zimbardo, Ph.D., renowned psychologist and founder of the Heroic Imagination Project in San Francisco, and fellow researcher Zeno Franco, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin, have been working on the topic for years. Their goal is to give families the tools to recognize and help turn around negative situations, making real positive change. To act heroically, it’s critical to increase the sphere of what you are paying attention to in your life, Zeno says.

If you see someone being treated unfairly, and you truly believe it’s wrong and something you can speak up about, you will learn to step forward to help instead of saying “It’s not my problem,” he says.

“Most of us in any given week have a chance to be a small hero, and over the course of our lives, we’ll have the chance to be pretty significant to somebody else several times,” he says. “Often we miss it and end up being a bystander unintentionally because we are not paying attention.”

Failure to act can cause guilt, especially when someone is hurt physically or socially. Zeno says this can lead to self-doubt and negative feelings about your own character.

“I think that everyone encounters risks for speaking out about what’s right,” he says. It’s important for people to realize they are still capable of taking action when required, even when it’s not comfortable, he says.

For children, sharing stories where the good guys win helps them activate “their heroic imagination,” Zeno says. It can help them learn to not shy away from taking stands when they grow up.

Happy Heroes

Can being a hero make you happy? Zeno says yes and no. There may be positive satisfaction from saving someone from serious injury or death, but after the heroics are over you may feel as if you didn’t do enough, or you might go through withdrawal once the spotlight is off.

Carol says that failing to trust in yourself or consistently act on your beliefs can make you unhappy. “People are happier when they have courage and confidence because they do act on what they want,” she says.

Ronnie, as humble and grateful as he is about his job as a firefighter, says he is happier when he’s helping. “Sometimes I feel guilty for taking the accolades for the job that we do,” Ronnie says. “Why wouldn’t someone want to do this? It’s rewarding in itself.”

John, the Green Beret medic, says accepting the risk comes with the territory. “When I loaded up on that helicopter or a truck to go on to a target, or when I stood up on that ramp at 25,000 feet at 3 a.m. getting ready to jump out of a transport plane, I was always at peace. I never once worried about my own death.”

That risk can also give us perspective, reminding us to live our lives in the present and be grateful for the people we have around us.

“When I see that 18-year-old who was in a drunken driving accident and his mom is standing there holding his hand because he has a brain injury that he will never recover from, I think to myself, ‘I’m going to go home and love my daughter, and I’m going to appreciate every single moment with my child,’” Renee says. “Because what makes me any different from this mom and this child? … It can be taken away in a moment. It’s a gift to be able to go home and really be mindful and in the moment with our family and friends.”
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