This past 9/11 found the first responders of Marco Island gathered around the flagpole at Station 50 in a small, intimate ceremony paying tribute to the 2,977 people killed in the attack, 412 of whom were emergency responders. There was no fanfare, invite list, or camera, just a silent moment of reflection as each person weighed the gravity of a career choice where being killed in the line of duty is a possibility.
As December 7th became a day of remembrance and gratitude for the men and women serving in WWII, so too has 9/11 come to define just how much we ask of our first responders and city employees working day and night to keep our municipalities safe and operational. With that in mind, Coastal Breeze will begin a new column profiling Marco Island’s firefighters, police officers, and city workers, in the hope that sharing the passion and commitment they bring to their jobs will further strengthen the bonds of our community.
Juan Cabezas ~ 37
Juan was getting ready to head to work at a local nutrition supplement store in Hialeah when the news broke on September 11, 2001. At nineteen, Juan was contemplating his future, and the events that morning set him on his ultimate path in life—helping others.
“I immediately felt pulled to do something,” Juan recalled. “I initially planned to join the military, but as anyone with a Cuban mother knows, the emotion that followed when I told her my decision was intense.”
At the nutrition store, Juan regularly interacted with local firefighters and spoke to them about their experiences on the job. They told him it was the “best job in the world because they got to help people and spend off days with their families.” He decided that September to become a Firefighter/Paramedic and to serve the community.
Before joining the Marco Island Fire Department in 2016, Juan worked for Collier County EMS as a Paramedic and Field Training Officer. His exemplary service at CCEMS was one of the reasons his application stood out to Fire Chief Mike Murphy.
“Juan is a fantastic, caring professional. When you meet him, you immediately sense his desire to help. After Hurricane Irma, Juan and fellow firefighter Leo Rodriguez personally drove around to the homes of on-duty firefighters and checked on their families, making whatever emergency repairs needed to happen. I am so proud that he has chosen this profession, and even more proud that he chose the City of Marco,” remarked Murphy.
Following his hiring at MIFD, Juan became certified as a Hazardous Material Technician, and part of a specialized team trained to handle any chemical or weapons of mass destruction incidents in the state. They also respond to fuel spills, illicit drug labs, and other high-risk situations involving toxins. Juan is close to completing his Pump Operator certification, Dive Rescue certification, and Fire Officer I certification, which will allow him to test for the Captain position and set up command at a structure fire.
Despite these specializations on the fire department side, Juan’s favorite aspect of the job is the medical portion. “There’s nothing like being able to help someone who is sick or injured and changing their outcome. That kind of impact gives you an amazing feeling.”
When he is not on a 48-hour shift at the department, Juan dedicates himself to his “most important role in life—dad.” He and his wife welcomed their third child 3 months ago, a little girl keeping them both very busy with bouts of colic and little sleep. They also have a 5-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter.
“The hardest part of this job is being away from your family. When your son tells you how much he misses you, it’s hard. But… I want to provide for them and lay the groundwork for them to have a good life. By observing our experiences, they learn that taking care of your responsibilities is important.”
While his family is his motivation, it can also be a double-edged sword. Juan has learned to appreciate the time he has with his loved ones because “you don’t know when something is going to change.” One such moment came when Juan was first on scene to a drowning call for a 14-month-old little girl. “She had slipped under the water in the bathtub, and we didn’t know how long she had been down. We did everything we could for her, but couldn’t get her back. That call still haunts me. I can see her face. I can see my kids’ faces in her.”
To this day, Juan is vigilant with his children around water and supports initiatives in the community that aim to prevent drownings.
“There are so many positive moments in our job. We work at a department where we are supported from the top down, and they genuinely care that we are okay and that our families are okay,” Juan continues. “I can’t tell you how much that means because some of our toughest calls have residual effects.”
Calls like those and the overall nature of their unpredictable job also leave Juan with some words for the community. “I want the community to know that we really do care, and we support them. If we are running lights and sirens to a call or moving fast with the stretcher, please understand that it is just part of the job. We want to give the person on the other side of the 911 call the best chance to have a good outcome. And… we are human. Sometimes, we run calls all night and are operating on little sleep. Sometimes we are coming from a call where there was a bad outcome. If we occasionally forget to smile, forget to hold the door, or give you a honk when responding, know that we mean no disrespect. We are thankful for the wonderful community we work in.”
Andrea Leiner is a former media executive from NYC turned Nurse Practitioner working in Emergency Medicine. A full-time Marco resident, Andrea hosts a nursing blog at www.alteredmentalstatus.com and oversees Media and Strategy for Global Response Management, a veteran-led nonprofit providing emergency care and humanitarian aid in high-risk areas.