My EMS life…

Saturday night I worked on the ambulance for the first time since I quit last May. It was bizarre… In some ways I felt like it had been years since I did this, but then it also felt like I never left. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know how I would feel about going back to the place I spent the last 16 years, after I said I would never go back. Even though it’s only been 8 months, I’ve changed a lot since I left that career. I’ve realized some things about myself because I got really honest with myself. Working in a job like EMS is really like working on a different planet or something. lol… Here’s what I mean…

Working EMS you see and hear everything… and when I say everything, I mean EVERYTHING. I have seen it all. Really nothing shocks me, very few things offend me, and I can be in the middle of chaos and it all just feels normal. But is that a good thing? Yes, it means I’m quick on my feet and I react quickly and effectively, even in stressful situations, which can definitely be beneficial, but it can also be a negative… because I think sometimes it makes us just go through the motions, without fully experiencing life… at least it did in my case. It can affect how we relate to certain things, and our relationships with others… and ourselves. It can change our view of how the world works. There are certain expectations we place on ourselves in EMS to be able to handle anything – cool, calm, and collected. To be tough. To be perfect and handle every situation without error. To be authoritative. To be compassionate no matter the circumstance. To be selfless. To be immune to everything – including illness, sadness, and handling absolutely disgusting situations… and doing it with a smile. But that is not an authentic, genuine way to live. We are supposed to be freaked out and mess up from time to time. We are human.

I know if my ambulance partner is reading this right now, he is rolling his eyes at me, and thinking “whatever”… Because I was the same way. I would laugh to myself and think I was tougher than my cohorts who did bravely express any of these feelings or concerns about the job. For 16 years I was numb… because I felt I had to be. I think it’s a remarkable survival mechanism to be able to shut down in certain ways to provide a needed service to others… Because let’s face it – bad shit happens, and someone needs to be there to clean it up. But what is the toll all that numbness takes on us – the caregiver? Being out of it for a little while now, I have really been able to step back evaluate the way I lived my life the last 16 years, and it has been an emotional journey…

My partner and I used to joke about having cumulative PTSD from the job, and someday we would just snap and all of our crazy would come out. lol… but honestly, that may not be too far from the truth. (I am in no way making fun of PTSD btw. I know it is a very real & disabling disorder, and should be taken seriously. Humor is a coping mechanism for me.) People often ask me “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?”… and to be honest – I have no idea. There are certain calls that stand out in my mind, but most of the stuff that jogs my memory were not necessarily the most traumatic in the sense of injuries or whatever, but they just had special circumstances that were memorable – for example, a plane wreck, or they were amusing (and to those not in EMS reading this – we are not assholes laughing about “bad” calls… there are plenty of amusing situations people get themselves into, and we laugh along with the patient), or many other reasons certain calls jog my memory… but I really can’t identify the “worst” thing I’ve ever seen. I remember the first time I even really thought about how my job affected me… It was probably about 10 years into my career, and we had a terrible call. Not fun. After the call, I cleaned up the ambulance… did I cry or think about the terrible things I just saw, touched, or experienced? No, I ate a sandwich. When my partner got back in the unit we said to each other “Well, that sucked.” Then went on with our night talking about a TV show or something dumb like that. That was it. There were no tears. No emotions. Just business as usual. Our supervisor pulled us aside and asked if we needed to go out of service, and invited us to attend a debriefing about the call (which, of course, we refused because we were tough and could handle it)… What made me question how this job affected me, was because over the next few days people asking me if I was okay, kept saying how sorry they were that we had to run that call. I know this sounds absolutely horrific, and makes me seem like a total monster, but it wasn’t until everyone else was concerned about my well-being that I even questioned the fact that maybe I SHOULD feel sadness or distress in someway… THAT was the most upsetting thing to me. Don’t get me wrong, I knew it was a terrible call, and I knew the outcome was going to cause great sadness for friends and family members affected by the patient’s outcome… but I never considered how seeing such terrible situations with my own eyes and having a hands-on perspective should actually feel traumatic to me in some way… that would be a “normal” response most people would have, I guess. But it really didn’t phase me. That was the first time I realized there must be a part of me that was shut down emotionally, and I buried a lot of things deep down inside so I didn’t have to re-live it over and over… and it was disturbing. Luckily, the “bad” calls are actually much more few and far between than TV would portray it to be. Most of the time the job is monotonous, and that can wear on you mentally, as well… Then there is the extremely common abuse we receive as EMS professionals. I have been called every name in the book. I’ve been spit at, kicked, punched, grabbed inappropriately, insulted, and made to feel worthless… and this was all from people who asked me to help them! I became a heartless asshole in many ways because of it all. Often I would question what the hell I was doing with my life working in such a thankless job, that barely paid the bills, took me away from my kid, and consumed my weekends, holidays, weekdays, with terrible hours, that took a physical toll on my body, etc… The combination of all of these factors wore on me, and I was burned out to the max. I did not enjoy my job at all. I would joke about how EMS had ruined me as a person, and how I would never make it in the “real world” because I was jaded to the world… but it was no joke. It was true. I started to feel like there was something wrong with me, as a person, because of all of this… and that is where the trouble lies. When you start to feel that way about yourself, it affects the way you approach things in life, because you feel flawed, so often you settle for less than what you deserve because of your feelings of unworthiness.

So, what have I learned since I left my EMS life? I’ve learned to feel many emotions I hadn’t felt in a long time. I learned to open up to others. Needing others for support in your life is not a sign of weakness. It is strength. It is a basic human need to feel connected with others. Finding a support system that will listen to you, and let you feel your emotions without judgment is one of the most beneficial things a person can do to not only keep your sanity, but to also avoid using other tactics to numb pain and trauma. The person doesn’t have to experience the same thing as you to be your support either… They just have to be able to listen, and say “I’m here for you”. That’s it. I am blessed beyond measure to have people in my life for this, and I love them dearly because of it. I think that is the key to longevity in a business like EMS. The people I know that have worked it for many years, and don’t have that overwhelming sense of burnout, seem to have a good support system around them. They are able to leave the job, talk about it openly, then go on and enjoy the good things in life. I have learned to believe in myself, and to know that I am enough. I may be flawed, but I am worthy of great things – just as I am… no hustle needed. I have learned to let God lead my life… I have free will to make my own decisions, but I believe there is a greater plan already lined out for me… and if I keep my connection with Him strong, I will make the decisions to lead me down that path… and finally, I have learned to feel fulfilled even as I grow… to accept and enjoy my journey. My story is in no way perfect, but it is mine… and I am proud of it. I have learned from my mistakes, and I have grown from them too. I will make plenty more in my lifetime, but that is okay, because I am a child of God, and I am enough.

I honestly don’t know if I was truly ready to delve back into the EMS world, even PRN, but I will just take it day by day, and continue to grow as a person, and everything will be alright. 🙂

2 Comments on “My EMS life…

  1. Thanks for sharing and putting into words how I have felt for years. After 28 years in EMS, 17 as a dispatcher, I knew it was time to quit responding when I started thinking there was something wrong with me, because I felt I could no longer feel emotion. I know what PTSD is and its not the “BIG” calls that are necessarily at the root of it, but often the small, seemingly insignificant ones that are the culprit. I’ve often wondered what makes a person willing to expose themselves to emotional & mental trauma on a day to day basis…I know in my case I wanted to be the one to make a difference…unfortunately, no one told me what a toll it would take. The mentality that we are tough and should just suck it up and deal with it is just so wrong. But unfortunately is the mind set that so many EMS personnel have.

    • You’re absolutely right, Fran. It’s not always the “big” calls. It really is the cumulative effect of all of it. Talking about it has helped me a lot. I don’t feel so broken. It’s scary to be so vulnerable, but it’s necessary for my mental and emotional health.

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