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The Candy Bar Principle

Prone to panic attacks, Jane Stern conquers fear by facing it for others as an EMT.

Jane Stern gripped her husband Michael’s hand. Hard. The plane was about to take off for Chicago. This was always the worst part. Waiting on the ground, sealed inside the aircraft. Trapped. The roar of the engines grew. Jane shut her eyes. Suddenly the engines sputtered and died. The plane slowly taxied off the main runway and came to a halt again. We’re going to die, Jane told herself, her heart pounding harder than ever.

You may have heard of Jane and Michael Stern. They write best-selling books about American food and popular culture like Roadfood and Chili Nation: The Ultimate Chili Cookbook. So you might think Jane would be used to routine air travel. Not so. Air travel, like just about every other situation with an element of uncertainty, could fill Jane with inexplicable dread. A classic anxiety attack. It had been that way since she was nine.

“By the time I met Michael in graduate school,” remembers Jane, “I’d come to think of my fears as a permanent part of my life. My anxieties and phobias became something Michael learned to take for granted too. We looked at them, basically, as the ‘for worse’ part of our wedding vows.”

For decades, only Michael knew the true severity of Jane’s illness. Then came the day when Jane fell apart on the flight to Chicago. She says, “I was about to climb out of my skin.”

That’s when Jane spotted a young man across the aisle. He seemed to be having a rough time too—pale and sweaty, struggling for breath. “I leaned over and asked him what was wrong. He told me he was on a school trip and hadn’t eaten the whole day. I grabbed a candy bar out of my bag and gave it to him. It made him feel better.” The strange thing was, Jane felt better too. Her panic attack mysteriously subsided. Focused on helping that young man, she’d forgotten her own problems over a simple flight delay.

“That moment on the plane stayed with me. My fears, I’d figured, were as much a part of me as my love of greasy French fries and flashy cowboy boots. I didn’t like them? Too bad. I’m stuck with them. But maybe that wasn’t really the case. Maybe there was something I could do about them after all.”

Not long after the Sterns got back to their home in Connecticut, Jane passed a brick building with a plain white sign out front: Georgetown Volunteer Fire Company. “I had passed that building a million times, but for some reason I turned into the driveway.” She then did something even more surprising. “I told the guy in charge that I wanted to train to be an EMT. He looked me up and down. ‘Forget it, he said. I was too old, too fat and too fancy. I’d never cut it. I came back the next day. I wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

How could someone prone to panic attacks and fearful of stressful situations possibly function as an EMT? Well, maybe it was the “Candy Bar Principle.” In the spring of 2000, Jane finished her training and joined the Georgetown fire company’s volunteer EMTs. Her official EMT code name is G-65, but she often goes by another name: “Ambulance Girl, as in, ‘Honey, the Ambulance Girl is here. I hear those words, and I feel an incredible surge of pride.”

Jane still struggles daily with anxiety. But amazingly, since that day on the runway en route to Chicago, when her heart seemed ready to jump out of her chest, her fears have shrunk to a manageable size. “What God showed me on the airplane that day is what he continues to show me every day of my life as an EMT. When I’m in the back of an ambulance, helping keep someone alive or simply comforting them with a kind word and a hand to hold, my anxieties are a thousand miles away. The short answer to what happened to me? I learned that love casts out fear. It’s as simple—and as beautiful—as that.”

In other words, the Candy Bar Principle.
 

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