When the door on Camille Theriaque’s 20-year firefighting career closed shut, the door to earning a college degree opened.
“I loved firefighting. It was truly the greatest job in the world,” Theriaque shared in a recent interview. “If I wasn’t diagnosed with leukemia,” she said, “I would still be a firefighter.”
Instead, the soon-to-be 50 year old is pursuing a psychology degree at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She won a coveted spot as a Frances Perkins Scholar, a select program that welcomes women of nontraditional age who follow unconventional paths to college. With her education, Theriaque is fighting back against cancer by finding a new way to help others.
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Letting Go of Command
Theriaque has been diagnosed with an incurable form of leukemia called chronic myelogenous leukemia, or cml. Her diagnosis came in 2003, one month before she was promoted to lieutenant (the first woman firefighter of color to earn such a rank in the state). She remained on the force in Holyoke for another five years while being treated, but decided to retire in 2008 due to complications from the illness, which causes blood clots to form in the legs and lungs.
“I felt truly blessed to be firefighter,” she explains, “but with the complications…I knew I couldn’t command a crew and be a leader anymore if I couldn’t be the first one in.” Theriaque refused to ask her crew to do the things she couldn’t do when she lacked the energy. As much as she loved firefighting, “It was time to go,” she admitted.
[Video: This Marine and recovering addict pays it forward with a psychology degree.]
“When I was a firefighter, I witnessed a lot of death and human suffering,” Theriaque explained. She pointed to a particularly tragic incident early in her career when three children died in a fire. As a mother herself, Theriaque and her fellow firefighters were shaken by the experience and underwent counseling from the state’s Critical Incident Stress Management team (CISM). CISM teams are made up of psychologists, therapists, and co-workers who are trained in helping first responders deal with traumatic incidents to minimize the likelihood of them developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Theriaque felt so strongly about the CISM team’s mission that she became a team member herself in 1999. This is how she described the extremely important role they serve:
“The traumatic things that happen to you are like rocks and boulders you pick up and store in a backpack. Eventually, you will collapse from the weight. The team helps you take the rocks and boulders out of your backpack, examine them, and file them away in a cabinet. You can continue to examine them whenever you need to, but you don’t have to carry them with you.”
An incident in 2004, the same year her son joined the army, made Theriaque feel even more strongly about helping people with mental health disorders. “I met a young man when I was working at a graduation who was suffering from PTSD,” she recalled. “It upset me so much to see the pain he was going through,” she said, “knowing my son at the time was in boot camp and worrying about his mental health.” The young veteran later passed away, but his father took the time to call Theriaque and tell her how much it had meant to his son and their family that she had spent time with him that day.
Redirecting Her Passions with a College Degree
After high school, Theriaque had become a nurses’ aid before marrying and having three children. She began her firefighting career at age 24. She says she often thought about taking college courses while she was a firefighter, but was never being able to schedule them because of the rotating hours she worked. When her career ended, she knew college was what she wanted, and a psychology degree was a good fit.
Once her leukemia symptoms were under control, Theriaque enrolled in Holyoke Community College where she earned an associate’s degree in liberal arts, graduated magna cum laude in 2012, and was honored at the State House as one of 29 Who Shine —a program by the state’s department of education that highlights the successes of 29 high-achieving state and community college students, one from each of their schools.
Her advisor at Holyoke Community College also saw something special in Theriaque, and he recommended her for a Jack Cook Kent Scholarship, which helps outstanding community college students transfer to competitive four-year colleges. Theriaque became one of only 60 students in the country to win the scholarship. At the same time, she was accepted to Mount Holyoke College with a full-tuition Harriet Newhall scholarship where she is now earning her psychology degree.
When she graduates in 2015, Theriaque will apply to schools that offer master’s degrees in social work so she can help veterans, firefighters, and other first responders suffering from PTSD.
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Recalling the events that propelled her to this point, Theriaque looks for the silver lining. “I feel that my leukemia was truly a mixed blessing,” she said. “I absolutely loved firefighting, but because of all the things that happened to me, my leukemia, it gave me the ability to write some great essays,” she reasoned, explaining that those essays led her to receive the financial aid she needed for college where she could re-direct her passion for helping people in another direction.
Helping people is a large part of who Camille Theriaque is, and she looks forward to starting a second career where she can continue to make a difference in people’s lives.