There is a certain comfort that comes from being able to explain in detail the difficulty I had intubating the child due to the two-minute noodles that were tangled around his cords after he was pulled lifeless from the swimming pool. There is unspoken relief, gratitude and respect that exists when we laugh about the persistent, repugnant smell of burnt, wet human tissue that gets stuck up your nose days after the case you attended, regardless of whether you touched the deceased or not. That moment of empathy when you take over the truck in the morning and the night shift guys say the night was “shit”. We just know what that means. Nothing more needs to be said, it’s enough to make the guys a cup of coffee so they get home to their own bed in one piece.
When we describe ourselves like “family”, it’s because we see each other in the best and worst moments of our lives. I may not be his wife, but as his work partner I see him sweat as he tries in vain to resuscitate the child, the tears he tries to hide and the images that he will try to protect his wife from. And he will see me hold the Nanas’ hand as she passes, silently saying a prayer to honor her when nobody else is there to do so. Unless you have actually seen a Cat Lady breastfeeding her cats, you’ll never appreciate how funny that look is, that one glance from your partner that says it all. There are no words for breastfeeding cats, none.
We share these experiences together and they bond us. We don’t talk about the details often. Usually we are more concerned about where to find the next feed or coffee but the bonds are there, they are real and they are strong. I have shed more tears from laughing with my colleagues about the absolute hilarity of life than anything else.
Of course there are many tears that never get shed, most of them in fact. So when I receive the phone call from my long-term work mate that one of our own is dead, it is like a dam is burst open in my heart. The fact that he was once my
boyfriend and I “knew” it would come to this one day makes the moment even more surreal.
As a Paramedic I have a well- developed ability to sit in the face of horrific events and appear unaffected. I can pause, breath, respond with appropriate words in a very calm way. A jet plane could fall from the sky and I recon I wouldn’t flinch. I’d see it happen, pick up my phone and start making the appropriate calls. In order to be able to act in the face of intense trauma, one must learn to dissociate somewhat from their feelings. I used to think this dissociation was emotional “mastery”. I was wrong of course, but in any case, having that control over my emotions certainly came in handy more than once during my career as an on road Paramedic.
They say that hearts don’t break, they bend but I can tell you now that something broke deep inside me on that particular day. All that “mastery” melted in an instant and I sobbed a million tears. We have all seen so many deaths of course; it’s not about the death. The tragic irony of a Paramedic choosing death always hits so hard.
Some may say that starting in the job at age 20 robbed me of my innocence. I disagree. Robbed my “ignorance” perhaps. I like to think that I have been given an incredibly positive attitude towards life as a result of working in the job.
Dealing with suicide after suicide of my colleagues has been a different matter however. There is a wound that is difficult to heal when these fellows with whom we share so much intensity, “opt out”. The first one was shocking, the second distressing, the third had been my boyfriend and felt as if it broke me, the fourth a friend and it pissed me off. The next was unexpected and the fact he attended by a colleague who would become another “statistic” himself only 18months later, utterly devastating. The sad irony being that he was to be found by yet another colleague who will be haunted by that same final image.
And so the bitter-sweet relationship of the Paramedic exists. On one level you’d trust your partner with your life. God knows we know their dirty secrets! But then you never know what dark thoughts they entertain. Never actually know if perhaps they will be the next one to make that final decision that will crush us all again. And in the meant time we keep attending to the general public, knocking on doors, bringing them back from the dead, letting them go and moving them on. Patching them up, sorting them out, mending their wounds.
Perhaps if we put enough people back together, save enough lives and relieve some more pain we will somehow mend our own hearts. Maybe we all just have one collective pain and it is possible to recover our own losses through recovering the losses of our patients. Maybe a little piece of ourselves comes back to us each time we get a heart beating again. And maybe every time we cry from laughing about a breastfeeding Cat Lady, another fragment of our broken hearts fly back to us and give us the fuel to keep on going in this crazy, passionate, painful and glorious world of the Paramedic.
What I do know from my insane wealth of experience with dealing with suicide is this:
- Emotions are energy moving, normal and natural. When you allow yourself a space to grieve, cry or sob like a hyperventilating crazy, you feel BETTER afterwards. Exhausted but better. And it’s better for you. So do it. Cry!
- We are all the same essentially. So all you “tough guys and girls” out there, just know that you are allowed to have feelings too. It’s OK to have a feeling and you never know, being honest about how you are feeling might just make it easier for your mates to have theirs.
- Talking about it helps. It’s OK to say that you are pissed off, angry, let down etc. Find a mate that you trust and let them know what’s going on inside your head. Guess what? It may change as soon as you share it and that’s OK too.
- If you ever entertain the thought that you want to self harm or kill yourself for goodness sake, TELL SOMEONE!!! This has the effect of bringing LIGHT into an otherwise DARK inner landscape. There is always a better option.