Mara H. Gottfried
ST. PAUL, Minn. — As St. Paul firefighters stood facing retired Deputy Fire Chief Tom McDonough, he told them how important their support is for him and his family. Wednesday marked two years since the death of his son, firefighter Tommy McDonough.
“It means so much to us that the department hasn’t forgotten,” McDonough said, his voice emotional as firefighters nodded their heads. “And you not only haven’t forgotten, but you’re moving forward — all the type of things that would help prevent this from happening to somebody … again.”
They were gathered for the McDonough Memorial Workout of the Day, “The Tommy,” which was designed to remember the fallen firefighter, and to bring awareness to the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on first responders and to suicide prevention. McDonough, 28, died by suicide.
The Tommy workout is in the tradition of CrossFit hero and memorial workouts to honor military members who died in the line of duty.
The younger McDonough had dreamed of becoming a firefighter. He served in the Marine Corps Reserve and was an on-call firefighter in St. Paul Park, Cottage Grove and Somerset, Wis. He joined the St. Paul fire department in 2015, working at Station 9 on Maryland Avenue near Hazelwood Street.
“He was known for his big, infectious smile, willingness to help, and dedication to the job,” the fire department wrote in a flyer about Wednesday’s event outside the Conway Recreation Center. “The emotional trauma of the job over time began to affect him and he struggled with his mental health.”
The elder McDonough, who retired the year before his son died, was focused on mental health for all firefighters during his career. He applied for a grant, which the department received, that provided training for firefighters to lead a peer support group. He previously said he encouraged Tommy to attend the group.
The St. Paul fire department’s peer fitness team promotes physical and mental health, and they decided to develop workouts of the day to memorialize four of the department’s own firefighters, including those who died from cancer, a heart attack and suicide, said firefighter Bryan Buxton.
The three health problems most commonly experienced by those in the fire service are cardiac, emotional trauma and cancer, according to the Minnesota Firefighter Initiative.
The workout for Tommy McDonough was the first in the series and the peer fitness team is planning to hold them annually. In addition to firefighters, community members who belong to local gyms came out to participate Wednesday.
“I wanted to remember Tommy, especially 50 years from now when everyone on the fire department doesn’t know who Tommy was, this is a way to honor him every year,” said Capt. Kyle Bode, the fire department’s health and wellness coordinator. “Then also, it’s a way of talking about mental health. Because it’s something that I think we’re getting better at, but we need to have the discussions to prevent something like this from happening again.”
The elements of the Tommy workout were what McDonough liked to do when he exercised — using a rowing machine and sandbags as weights — and the numbers represent dates that were significant in McDonough’s life. People taking part in Wednesday’s workouts used rowing machines to reach 122 meters for his daughter’s birthday of 1/22, and there were five rounds with 21 reps of sandbags for McDonough’s son’s birthday of 5/21.
McDonough’s daughter, now 7, wore a shirt Wednesday that said, “Daddy is my hero.” His son, now 4, jogged with the first group as they warmed up. Trainers from six gyms led the workouts that started anew each hour.
Some firefighters wore their full turnout gear to make the workout tougher.
MAYOR URGES FIREFIGHTERS TO FOCUS ON EMOTIONAL HEALTH
Mayor Melvin Carter joined McDonough in speaking to the group assembled before the workouts began.
“Our firefighters, our first responders, our police officers — you guys are the ones who run in when everybody else is running out,” Carter said. “… You hold a lot of weight on your shoulders as our heroes that we all rely on. You see a lot, you experience a lot.”
Carter said he appreciates that firefighters take their physical health seriously and he urged them to take the same focus on their emotional health.
“The same as we have to exercise our physical muscles to carry these physical sandbags, my hope is that you invest just as heavily in your capacity to sustain all of the emotional and spiritual sandbags that you pick up on behalf of our entire city,” Carter said.
Watching all the people who came to remember Tommy McDonough was a sign of support to his family, said Ali Scanlon, McDonough’s significant other and the mother of his children.
“I just wish he realized how much everybody loved him before this happened,” she said.
The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline can be reached 24/7 by dialing 988.
Minnesota firefighters (volunteers, paid-on-call, part-time or full-time) can call a 24-hour hotline if they’re in crisis or need help at 888-784-6634.