In my career as a nurse in quality improvement, I first heard Don Berwick’s “Escape Fire” speech in 2002. This was the riveting and tragic story of a fire that broke out in the mountains of Montana on August 5th, 1949. It was in Mann Gulch, a small, two-mile canyon that ran from the mountains down to the Missouri river.
Fifteen men jumped into the canyon to fight the “10 o’clock fire,” a term given to fires deemed small and likely easily controlled by the morning after the jump. These men ranged in age from seventeen to thirty-three years old.
The smokejumpers had only been organized for nine years at that point, and there was a lot they didn’t yet understand about fires. This fire jumped the gulch to the other side. That side was grassland, a fuel fires can consume far more quickly than trees. The smokejumpers were quickly cut off from the Missouri River as the fire raced up the mountainous terrain towards them.
The incline on those mountains was seventy-four percent. The men wore thick suits and carried their own equipment, including their Pulaskis, a heavy tool combining an axe and an adze. They were in 100-degree heat.
Their foreman was a man named Wag Dodge and he quickly realized that the fire would overtake them. Then—as Dr. Berwick said—he did something extraordinary. He became innovative on that terrible slope. He reached for his matches and lit the grass above him on fire. That fire quickly caught and rushed up the mountain ahead of him.
Dodge called his smokejumpers to stay with him, in the middle of the burned-out area he had created. But, whether it was fear or disbelief or simply the unwillingness of the smokejumpers to do anything but what they had been taught, they kept heading up the mountain with the fire closing in on them.
Two of the smokejumpers managed to reach the crest of the summit. The rest were overcome by the fire and perished—except for Wag Dodge, who lay down in the middle of the “escape fire” he had created in a moment of desperation. All of the twelve men who died still had their Pulaskis clutched in their hands.
Dr. Berwick went on to talk about how healthcare leaders were still holding on to their outdated tools that no longer worked in a broken system. The analogy was a strong and memorable one, and it occurred to me that it is also an analogy that works well when we make a commitment to a healthier lifestyle.
All my life, I held on to my Pulaski: dieting. Going on a diet was my way of trying to control my weight. I actually never considered trying to be “healthier,” or if I did I simply equated that in my mind to becoming thin. Yes, I tried a veritable boatload of diets: Weight Watchers, NutriSystem, counting calories, counting carbs, counting fat grams. However, they were all a different form of the same tool, and I never questioned that a diet was the one and only tool I had or needed. That is, until almost three years ago.
I knew I needed to do more than just the same old thing. I knew that my excessive weight had caused physical disability that wasn’t easily overcome. I realized that I had to question everything I thought I knew about losing weight—and I had to come up with a plan to keep that weight off once I had lost it.
I created new tools and approaches. With every small victory—every pound lost or exercise advanced—I felt the creation of a new landscape for my life. That doesn’t mean that I found “the answer” to getting healthy—simply that I found “the answer” for me. What continues to stun me is how easy it is for me to follow this new lifestyle, and how much joy it gives me.
Our Pulaskis aren’t our behaviors that we already know aren’t good for us. They are, instead, the tools we think we absolutely need to reach our personal goals. They are the tools we think will work even though they never have.
Isn’t it time for you to put down your Pulaski and find a better path for yourself? It can light up your life, as it did mine!