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Small Things Have a Big Impact

The headlines in newspapers across America usually have big, bold statements about news-worthy events. These are attention grabbers. They cause you to read further, maybe buy the paper and generate a profit for the company.

These bold headlines are often times quotable quotes. They may be phrases or titles that will stick for eternity. This is a “Day of Infamy” and “Dewey defeats Truman” bring the image of the newspaper to the forefront in your memory. Large events get large press.

Small items get placed in the back pages of most newspapers. They may highlight the “local” sections or are buried in the deeper recesses of the advertisements.

Small items may not have the flamboyance or attention-getting nature of the bold fonts on the front page, but that does not mean that smaller items are of less significance. I am reminded of this because of a recent instance in my life.

I stepped on a roofing nail. It was 2 1/2 inches long and 3/16-inch wide. It was barely noticeable if you weren’t looking for it, which I wasn’t. The nail had been lying in wait in some newly cut lawn and had been sitting on the head, leaving the sharp end sticking straight toward the sky. Had it been a bold, shiny broad sword, I would have seen it and taken notice. It was small, barely news-worthy.

I was stepping at a normal pace and wearing sneakers. When I put my foot down, I immediately felt a searing pain that caused an instant and reflexive action. I fell to the ground and yelled at my brother to pull it out. He could not even see it since the only thing really visible was a small tuft of grass. It was buried into my heel.

I grabbed the end of the nail and completely disregarded all I was taught about working with impaled objects. I removed that nail with speed that would make a professional boxer proud. It kept coming out. I already stated how long it was on exam after the incident, but as it was being liberated from my foot, it looked like a javelin.

I knew it had gone straight into the bone. I had to really pull to loosen it. Within one second, a nauseating feeling came over me and I began sweating...everywhere. Little beads forming small droplets on every pore. It was strange to actually see that happen.

I thought I was a big tough guy, but not so much. I was put in my place by something smaller than your little finger. It got me thinking. When the nail introduced itself into my heel, lots of things happened. I was very quickly a man of action and tore at it with reckless abandon. I began to have visceral reactions that I could not control. I tried to think about the possibilities, but only settled on the pain and the fact that I did not want this to get infected. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I dug up a little nugget of information. Puncture wounds through shoes were problematic due to the humid environment and other gross things lurking there, as seen on just about any athlete’s foot commercial.

Now, several days later, it still hurts. I am on antibiotics and watching for infection. It hurts more than it should, based on the size of the offending object. It has limited my mobility a bit and I now have a funny, toe-only gait.

It got me to thinking. What other little things, that never see the front page or big fonts, impact us.

Little comments made without regard to whose feelings may be injured. Those are rarely seen and almost never get big press. They have weight nonetheless. Words can hurt more than any visible injury. They go deep and pass the bone. They make it directly to your heart. They do not heal as quickly either. They infect other structures and cause pain and discomfort that can last a long time.

As newly minted fire officers, we were taught to mind your speech and not to make negative comments about your department or your people. This is a hard lesson for people who live together and have a reputation that would make the town gossip pages pale in comparison. We even have a name for it. We call it the grapevine. If you listen to Jimmy Buffett, he calls it the “Coconut Telegraph.”

This is an informal route of communication that allows each receiver of new information an opportunity to add or embellish a bit. When this conduit of information is being fed, it rarely is filled with “good news.” Most often it is negative emotions being given an opportunity to be let out. It may be directed at someone or at the organization.

Here, as officers, we must think before adding to the gush. It may be wise to stop and listen. Even the most skewed and tilted viewpoints are most often based on some small degree of truth. This could be valuable information. By listening, you can garner useful pieces that may help you look for further information. Also, by listening, you give the sender (messenger) an opportunity to vent and that may help them feel better.

Both are valuable to you. Of no value, is adding things to the fray that will be inflammatory or hurtful. It needs to be a conscious decision sometimes to withhold your ideas. Human nature calls for us to want to be included. One way to do this is to agree and join the crowd.

Beware of this temptation. Watch out for traps. Look out for those broad swords. Look for the nails in the grass. Trouble does not come at you in bold typeface.

Little things have great impact. They take a long time to heal and cause damage bigger than the size of the initial, offending article.

Be safe.

JAMESON R. AYOTTE, a Contributing Editor, is a fire lieutenant/paramedic with the Amesbury, MA Fire Department. where he is the shift commander of Group 3. Lt. Ayotte holds a B.S. in Exercise Physiology and an M.S. in Physical Therapy from UMass-Lowell. He is a certified Fire Officer I, Fire Officer II and Fire Instructor I. In addition to working as a full time Firefighter, he works as an instructor at the Massachusetts Fire Academy. View all of Jameson's articles here. He can be reached at