Story and photos by Amy Byres with the Rio Rancho Observer
After a decade of helping Sandoval County first responders cope with the sacrifice of serving, Senior Chaplain Kathy Thibodaux is retiring.
Thibodaux started the chaplaincy program in 2011 under late county Fire Chief Jon Tibbetts. Before that, she worked as a hospice nurse for 30 years and a disaster chaplain for 20 years, and is trained in crisis intervention.
“It has been a great honor to work with this department… I have grown; really, it is a great opportunity and I am going to miss it,” she said.
County Fire Chief Eric Masterson said the county will never truly know the impact her services have had.
“Before she was hired, there was no firefighter wellness program for Sandoval County Fire and Rescue; no chaplaincy program to speak of,” Masterson said. “She has basically taken the program and built it around firefighter wellness, chaplaincy outreach. She has trained numerous chaplains; she responds to scenes; she helps with the community that is dealing with whatever the incident may be; she’s helped numerous other agencies throughout the county and the state. She is very well known — she is very well respected throughout New Mexico.”
Thibodaux said it is the highest compliment to hear that no one will ever truly know her impact. She values the confidentiality with whoever she talks to.
“I don’t like to talk about myself — or some of the things that I do — I like for my actions to speak louder than my words. I think that being a chaplain, you have to be humble; you also have to have integrity (and) there has to be a trustworthiness about you,” Thibodaux said.
Masterson said achieving that level of confidentiality in today’s day and age is something to commend.
“It is surreal that this moment has come. Probably one of the biggest things I am going to miss is she would often visit the fire stations with brownies,” he said.
Thibodaux has spent much of her time at the Cuba fire station. Cuba Fire Chief Rick Romero said the station’s volunteers and staff have nothing but love for her.
“She hears the radio; she knows when we’re at a critical incident, and she’ll check on us and she will check on our members and has her cards and her numbers all over our station. She is not a Sandoval County chaplain; she has been a part of our family,” Romero said.
Thibodaux started the peer-support program at the county and teaches classes on how to identify signs of suicidal thoughts and compassion fatigue, and build positive coping skills.
“What I teach my firefighters is to be able to take care of themselves after they go to a difficult call. So we might do a debriefing and have everyone on the scene talk about what they saw that is always a confidential conversation in that circle,” she explained. “Then I try to talk to them about how you take care of yourself.”
She says drinking plenty of water and working off the adrenaline in your system helps de-escalate the body. Thibodaux sees everything the first responders do, making her empathetic to their feelings.
“If I am willing to admit to them that I am vulnerable and that I have my days and I need to talk to someone, that builds confidence that they can talk to me or talk to someone else,” she said. “We don’t just want people to go home safe; we want them to go home healthy.”
She has to practice what she preaches and practice good self-care.
“I teach the fellow firefighters to look out for each other because maybe they don’t understand that they are going through a stressful time, but it shows, and maybe their partner can see it,” she said. “I taught the same things to my husband so he can see it in me.”
After returning home from a call, she sits in a room alone for an hour, closes her eyes and listens to music quietly.
She said that in retirement, she is looking forward to spending more time with her husband of 49 years.
“One of the things that I believe is that you cannot pour into the lives of someone else from an empty cup, so my cup has to be full,” Thibodaux said.
This fire season, she is committed to working in the Cibola National Forest as a public information officer. After that, she is chasing the sunset, she said.
“There are just not enough words to thank the county for allowing me to serve in the capacity that I did, to go out and work with these fine men and women. To be able to help them, to be a friend to them, to be able to help the community, to recover from tragic scenes that they have been involved in,” she said.
Other chaplains will carry the program and build on what Thibodaux started.
Here are mental-health hotlines for first responders from responderstrong.org:
• Safe Call Now is a confidential 24-hour crisis referral service for all public-safety employees, all emergency-services personnel and their family members nationwide; call (206) 459-3020 or 1-877-230-6060.
• Fire/EMS Helpline is a confidential 24-hour hotline designed to meet the unique needs of firefighters, EMTs, rescue personnel and their families; call 1-888-731-FIRE (3473).
• Copline is a 24-hour hotline manned by retired law enforcement officers trained in active listening; call 1-800-267-5463.