After nearly losing her life in a fire and helplessly looking on as a man died of a heart attack, Chantale Bilodeau began volunteering with the Red Cross. Chantale has spent the last 12 years working for the organization she cares so deeply about and is now sharing her remarkable story.
I know how families feel in the aftermath of a disaster or emergency, because I almost lost my own life in a fire.
It was winter, in the dead of night, and a forgotten candle started a fire in my roommate’s bedroom. The smoke detector must have been defective, as I had put a new battery in just recently. We were both sound asleep and did not smell the smoke building up in the apartment. A policeman who happened to be patrolling the street saw the flames through the window. He managed to climb up onto our balcony and break down the door, even though the flames were growing bigger by the second.
I’ll never forget the sound of his voice as he shouted through the fire and smoke, “Follow my voice! Follow my voice!” While he tried to fight the blaze with a fire extinguisher, I crawled on all fours until a hand shot out of the smoke and firmly grabbed hold of me to push me outside. I was completely stunned, disoriented, not knowing what to do. My roommate and I were fine but we ended up spending the night in hospital under observation as a precaution.
The following day, our home was like a wasteland. We sifted through the wreckage of the apartment and didn’t know what to do. Back then, the Red Cross wasn’t yet responding to those kinds of situations, and I know now how grateful I would have been to have someone wrap me up in a blanket and offer me reassurance. I would have loved someone give me some guidance after my incident, like who to call, where to sleep, and how to clean my clothes. The support that Red Cross responders provide is like the voice that came out of the smoke asking me to trust him, to follow him out of the nightmare.
A heart full of compassion
There was another moment in my life that really changed things for me when I witnessed a man die from cardiac arrest. It was at the airport, and nobody knew what to do. I told myself that I absolutely had to learn how to react in situations like this. That motivated me to take first aid courses, and during those courses, I discovered that you could volunteer at the Red Cross during emergencies. When I found out that you could help people affected by fires, I cried! I knew that I could truly understand what they were going through and that I would know how to help them.
During my first emergency responses, my heart was bursting with compassion, and I felt so close to these people who were going through the same thing I had already been through! Being able to bring them some comfort and dignity made me so proud to be a part of the Red Cross. When I would come home in the middle of the night or early in the morning, I would go look at my children sleeping peacefully, and my heart would go out to the people that I had just helped.
It was 12 years ago that I started working with this organization. I often say that I have the Red Cross tattooed on my heart… and even after all these years, it’s just as true as ever.