After passing the 20 year mark in EMS, it’s easy to fall into the invincibility trap. After so many years, I was sure I had seen the worst of the worst and was relatively unscathed. Of course, all EMS providers have ghosts. You know the ones. Those patients we will never quite forget, the ones that occasionally creep out of the shadowed crevices of our minds to remind us that life is fleeting and rarely in our control. The ones that leave their mark are not always predictable, but this is our chosen profession.
So, we bury those ghosts, those stories, as best we can, and we carry on.But these ghosts aren’t why I’m here writing. I’m writing because successfully coping with the burden of these ones we’ve lost along the way does not mean that at the next turn, that very next call, we can’t be emotionally derailed in a way we didn’t even know was possible. I’m sharing this because I’m someone that thought they were invincible; that ‘breaking’ could never happen to me.
Now, I truly believe it’s vital to be able to ask for help and admit when we are broken- without shame.A few weeks ago, I was running at least an hour over my scheduled shift working as a response medic. I was literally signing out for the night when the call came in. Dispatch put out a report of shots fired in a local area that quickly escalated to multiple people down and a full out local EMS response. I arrived quickly, but there were already 3 ambulances on scene.
There were police and bystanders everywhere. Flashing lights. I had no sense, initially, of even where I even needed to go; it was chaos. Emerging from a dark, narrow walkway into the backyard of the home where the shooting took place felt surreal. I vividly remember asking myself if I had just stepped into some horror version of the Twilight Zone. Two EMS crews were tending to two separate patients, both critical. There were at least four that were already dead that I could see. They were all young women, heaped, literally, one on top of the other. Code black, the response medic told me. I assisted one crew with getting a patient on a stretcher. She wasn’t going to make it, but they had enough hands on deck, and there was nothing more for me to do.
I recall asking the medics where the shooter was, but no one knew. Were we next? Was there going to be a second ambush with EMS and police as targets? We didn’t know. Yet, there we were, doing what we’re trained to do. I had a moment where I literally wanted to run. I wanted to be home and safe with my family in that very moment, not standing there in the dark, wondering if the shooters had us in their sites.The crews left with their patients. There were no more living to be treated. No helping to be done. I stood there with no one but the dead. I did not even have a partner, as a response medic is a solo job.
I made my way back to my truck, and, as I drove away from that scene, I felt myself break. I’m pretty sure the crack was audible. My invincibility crumbled, my sense of safety shattered, and I fell apart. I didn’t want to be in my own skin. I wanted to run, not just from the scene, but literally run out of my own mind and body. I wanted to un-see what I had just witnessed. Nothing in 21 years prepared me for dealing with this alone. We underestimate greatly the power of how we as EMS crews debriefing one another after a bad incident without even trying. We talk it out, hash it, make inappropriate comments.
We cope together far better than we cope alone. I knew I wasn’t alright. But wait . . . I’m always Ok. I’m strong no matter what. That ideal was also shattered, and I suddenly didn’t know how to cope. Recently, and sadly, due to the loss of a friend to suicide, a group was created on Facebook, called Three Two Go. The group’s mission is fostering an environment where we as EMS and health professionals recognize that we need to look out for one another.
So, at nearly 2am in the morning, after the incident, I posted in the group that I needed help. That’s all; just a simple request. My phone rang immediately with one close friend, and another two reached out right then via Facebook. I talked and they listened, and that’s exactly what I needed. The outpouring of EMS friends offering support was nearly overwhelming. The next morning I told my manager that I was not handling things well, and he set me up with a counselor that same day through work.
I couldn’t be more grateful for how quickly those around me, both in my immediate work place, and those surrounding me, not only came to my aid, but kept checking in to see how I was doing.This wasn’t a time for pride. I knew that something was broken, and I also knew that I needed outside help to put myself back together.
I spent the next 4 days in a fog. I didn’t want to sleep, eat or interact with people. I had palpitations and hyperventilated when I heard sirens. I cried for no reason and every reason. I was terrified that I was broken permanently, and that my beloved profession was one I’d have to walk away from forever.
I continued seeing a counselor, and I attended the CISD debriefing with the crews. I talked every day to anyone that would listen. I cried at wildly in appropriate times for no apparent reason. I had flashbacks and even slept with the lights on. Yet, I continued to talk, and I continued to ask for (and receive) help in coping.
I’m happy to say that, only a month later, I am back to work and feeling close to normal. I may not be 100%, but I don’t doubt that the only reason I am even close is because I reached out and took advantage of every opportunity to help me get back onto my feet.
There is NO shame is admitting when you need help and certainly no shame in accepting that help in any form possible. Our mental well-being is no less important than our physical well-being, and we need to protect it just as fiercely and without apology.
– Story written by Melissa, 42 year old Pittsburgh paramedic. 21 years in EMS.