Last summer, Sue Schmidt watched her second husband walk her oldest daughter down the aisle. While not the same as if her father were there, the bride’s smile indicated that it might be OK.
“You have to learn that you are never going to get over it, but you will learn to get on with it,” Schmidt said. “It’s OK to love again and not feel guilty about it.”
Her late husband, Fire Fighter Specialist John Eric Schmidt, passed away March 21, 2001. Better known as “Pops,” “Felix” or simply “Eric,” he worked for Inglewood Fire Department for nearly 20 years before Los Angeles County annexed the department in late 2000.
“Inglewood was only nine square miles and it only had four stations … it was nothing like County,” she said. “County is so vast, so he was very excited because the possibilities were endless.”
Once with L.A. County, Eric attended paramedic school to update his credentials.
“His dream was to become a paramedic on the helicopters,” Schmidt said. “The County agreed to send him to school. They thought it would be a perfect time. Either he would be home on IOD (Injured on Duty) or he could be in a classroom, because he was in a cast.”
The year before, a gurney collapsed on him and blew out his shoulder. He was waiting for a second surgery after the first was unsuccessful.
He finished didactics and started hospital rotations, though the stressful shifts exacerbated his pain.
“What we think happened was he took (his pain medicines) and forgot he took it and took another dose too soon,” Schmidt said. The combination of medication stopped his heart. After nearly two decades of service and only four months with L.A. County, Eric died at age 49.
The autopsy found that Eric had a myocardial bridging of the coronary artery, a condition where the artery travels under the heart muscle instead of laying on top.
“If his heart condition had been known, he would have never been prescribed a muscle relaxer (Soma)—never mind taking it with the Percocet,” Schmidt said.
A lifelong athlete who competed as a cyclist, triathlete and marathon runner, and the recipient of three black belts in martial arts, Eric had no indication of heart problems. According to Schmidt, he always passed Inglewood Fire Department’s annual stress tests.
After his death, “I had to stay busy,” she said. “I had to have something productive to do or I would go out of my mind.”
Schmidt did this by taking care of her two daughters, taking a leadership role in the Department’s Family Support Group, and continuing with her education—she had gone back to college in August 2000, just before her husband was transferred.
After Eric’s death, everyone came to offer her support.
“It was almost too much in a way, you know,” Schmidt said. “All I wanted to do was go climb in a hole and I felt like I had people around and had to ‘Hold it together, Sue.’”
The Family Support Group and others offered a different type of support and companionship, as did local firefighters.
“The Fire Department was wonderful. The only thing that I found … were times when I would ask a question they didn’t know,” she said.
Questions like those led Schmidt to become one of many who helped put together the Family Support Group Survivors Handbook, a reference guide for someone who has lost a firefighting spouse.
“I felt like that should be something the chaplains are able to bring the widows right away … so at least you have something to work with initially,” she said. “You can look at the book and say, ‘Oh OK, I can call this; I can do this; here are some answers.’”
She said that she sees the Family Support Group as a “very, very important—almost mandatory—aspect for the survivors.”
“Let’s face it. When our husbands go, we’re it,” she said. “And with our kids, we’ve got to handle it all. And if we don’t get help and if we don’t get healthy, we can’t maintain and help our children and do whatever else…whatever our circumstances are, we’ve got to be OK.
“So having a resource like this…it’s a family,” Schmidt continued. “You know that these people and the Department are always going to be there for you—all you have to do is ask. If you raised your hand and said, ‘Hey, I need help,’ you’ll have, within moments, anybody and everybody at your door.
“That is an amazing feeling, to know that you are well cared for that way, and that you are safe that way and secure.”
Featured photo: This photo is of Sue, Eric and their two daughters at a trip to SeaWorld about two years before Eric passed away. Sue said it was probably one of their favorite vacations. The name plate is off of Eric’s uniform and the pin on top of the frame was from his paramedic course he was taking when he died; they presented the pin to the family at the graduation ceremony at the conclusion of the course. Photo by Breanne Foster.