Gone, but never forgotten

This post is a tribute to two people, but it also applies to many others around the world. The ones for whom the job becomes too much and they see no alternative. The ones who the system fails to recognise and support.

We trained together, without their help and motivation I might not have been as driven as I was. Then we lost touch. I heard about them through another training friend, the one who found them. It had been thought through, and there was no going back. On reflection, there may have been warning signs, but we deal with death and dying every day. We’re supposed to be immune to it, or so people think. Management don’t care, they are insulated from it in their offices. Forgotten by management, unknown by the public, never forgotten by us. One of us.

A trauma gp, a paediatrician, an anaesthetist… Those were a few of this person’s skills. They were trained to drive with systems by the Ambulance Service and they’d be on call for incidents involving trauma. Because they lived near my station we’d see them often at RTCs. When you felt their hand on your shoulder, and heard their voice, you knew everything would be ok. They didn’t take over, their voice usually said “hey, what can I do to help?”. That’s the kind of person they were. No one guessed there was a problem, until it was too late.

I’ll tell memories of both in later posts, this one is to remember them.

Gone, but never forgotten. To all the emergency workers who have passed away because the job got too much and the support just wasn’t there. Hopefully we learn from the tragic loss before many more die, saving other people’s lives….

The show must go on.

Someone recently asked me how I coped with the death and dying when I was in the Ambulance Service. I spoke in a previous post about how the crew depersonalise jobs. It’s something you learn the importance of very quickly. Often a crew will be required to give a police statement regarding a death, if a patient’s death is unexplained (usually the case, until a doctor writes a death certificate or a post mortem is carried out). One of the questions always asked is “Would you recognise the patient again?” to which I always answered “No”. The patient could be lying in the next room, but I had blanked their face from my mind, I had to. Occasionally the patient would be someone we had dealt with a number of times, one with an ongoing illness, someone you had built a rapport with. On those occasions there was sadness, and the family usually appreciated your precence.

On one occasion, I took my old school master in to hospital for a planned stay. I didn’t recognise them initially but, when I did, the respect came back as I remembered this kind person who had helped shape me and my school mates. Little did I know this would be their last journey, but I’m glad I was able to pay some kind of respect before they passed away.

The terminally ill patients were frequently inspiring. They knew the life they has left was short but they spent their time preparing, and preparing the people around them. “Live every day as if it’s your last” one of them said to me. Something I still need to remind myself of constantly. Those were the ones who lived life to the full, who often saw so many positives, even when facing their own end.

“There’s always someone worse off than you”. Words from another terminally ill patient. Words that kept me going often during my time in the service.

Some didn’t know death was coming – cardiac arrests, RTCs… The patients who had passed away before we arrived were the ones that were easy to blank out. The ones who we worked hard to save, only to have the A&E staff make the difficult decision that it was hopeless to continue, those were difficult to blank. While still being able to depersonalise the job, it was still hard to forget the effort we put in. Sometimes there was anger – anger at the patient for dying, anger at the hospital staff for giving up…anger at ourselves for failing to save a life.

I remember my first cardiac arrest. It was also my first real CPR. The horror of breaking ribs lasted seconds as we worked hard to save the patient. We rushed them to hospital but it was all hopeless. I thought I had come to terms with it until we returned to A&E the same day. One of the nurses pointed out the patient’s family being shown to the relatives room. They looked up at us as they walked past, and my heart sank as they tried to smile, grateful smiles for our efforts. Our part in it all would be forgotten quickly, but at that point in time we had done our jobs as best we could.

Sometimes relatives would ask to see us so they could thank us for our efforts. The first time I initially declined because I felt that I was “only doing the job I was being paid to do”, but a nurse politely explained how it was part of the families’ grieving process. Those moments were hard. This was someone elses’ grief, but I was being involved in it.

I saw death in many forms. While the memories of the lost ones will live on in those close to them, most will be forgotten by me over time. But there are those that will stay with me – some for good reasons, inspirational patients, some for bad reasons, the circumstances around their death. But all will have one thing in common – I don’t remember their faces.

When work follows you home….

I was on day shift the day my father passed away. My partner and I had been out to a couple of jobs but we were on standby in the mess room when I got the call. My partner realised there was something wrong as soon as I hung up. When they found out, they made me go home and contacted control to let them know. I remember driving home, having a shower (not sure why) and changing out of my uniform. The next thing I remember is receiving a call from a family member asking where I was. I was in a small village, some distance from home, on one of my favourite country roads for driving.

I went into hiding for the next three weeks and my friends gave me space. On reflection, possibly neither of those was a particularly good idea. Death was something that happened in other people’s lives. To me they were “jobs”, they had to be. Other people did the grieving, I walked away. Suddenly I was actually one of those other people…and I didn’t know how to be.

On the day I returned to work the second job of the day was to a local nursing home, run by the same company as the one my father had passed away in three weeks previously. The Ambulance screen claimed we were going to someone having a seizure, when we got there it turned out to be an elderly resident in complete cardiac arrest. We began work on the patient, until one of the nursing home staff tried to stop us. It transpired that the patient had a DNACPR order – Do Not Attempt CPR. This document was an ambulance crews’ nightmare, an end of life decision made by the patient or their family and their doctor. It is a legal document that prevents anyone from bringing a patient, usually with a poor quality of life, back from a fatal incident such as cardiac arrest. Unfortunately, until the document is presented, ambulance crews have a duty of care to do the opposite. We asked to see the document and the nurse presented us with a photocopy, not good enough. After 10 minutes of CPR the original document appeared and we stopped. It took around 40 more, long, minutes for all signs of life to completely disappear. 40 long minutes before our involvement was over. As I was doing the paperwork I heard two staff members talking – “That’s the second one this month. There was one in the other home three weeks ago.” my partner looked over at me to check I was ok. I nodded. Back in the Ambulance the screen lit up with the next job….

Some weeks later, it dawned on me that the nursing home my father was in was on the outskirts of my working area and I could have been called to that job

Cancer patients are regular jobs. Usually you gave them analgesia for the pain and took them to the cancer ward. Once dropped off, we’d go to the next job. To sit in a consultant’s office while they explain to you and your spouse that your spouse has cancer is not a situation you expect to be in, nor are you trained for. It is a genuinely surreal experience and it took some time to sink in. “This only happens to other people!!”. These are times when true friends get you both through.

There was no support from my ambulance service, no help offered. Thankfully surgery was successful, but I’m still waiting for any ambulance service manger to ask me how I’m doing, or even show an interest in that situation… or the loss of my father. The support my spouse and myself received was external, from cancer support charities. Without that support it would have been so much worse. The cancer is gone, the psychological effects are still there, but I can’t say enough about how amazing the support of those cancer charities is. If there are heroes out there, that’s where they work.

As always, this post is not about looking for sympathy in any form whatsoever. Ambulance crews face challenges every shift, and I am fully aware I am far from being the only one to face such situations. This post is to highlight yet another reason the Ambulance services across the UK need to step up their staff support, possibly even begin supporting in some areas of the country. We are all only human after all.

Who saves the life savers?

Someone told me about a TV program broadcast in Scotland recently. It suggested that almost one in ten paramedics suffered from PTSD, and one paramedic interviewed was diagnosed with it worse than had they been on a battlefield! They also said that the Ambulance Service had declined the opportunity to give a representative the chance to be interviewed.

These are the men and women who are responding to emergency calls daily, and their employer doesnt even have the desire to comment on national TV.

There was also talk of things that had been put in place to help crew members and front line staff, but what I hear from those front line staff is different. Other than proving that few in positions of management are actually aware of the reality that goes on outside their office doors, a fact that has been known by ambulance crews for many years, this is nothing new.

The above is not just limited to one part of the country either, it is widespread across all the ambulance services in the UK. I’ve spoken about the 5 minute breaks we used to get after bad jobs, and the phone numbers that get handed out – Call someone who you’ve never met before, who has never met you and never will, and tell them over a telephone line how you feel… Then hope that your colleagues don’t find out because you’ll feel like a failure and they might think that you are unfit to do the job.

That is the reality, that is what ambulance services need to address, and that is why crew members struggle on, until it gets too much and they can’t go on any longer.

I’ve held back slightly in previous posts, but I see no reason to any more. I could write things that would (or should) probably have ambulance service managers squirming, and can back them up with strong evidence, but that’s not the purpose of my blog.

When you watch people die in front of you and you have done everything possible. When you’re faced with an angry drug addict who’s life you just saved but who’s high you took away in doing so. When you face countless drunks who threaten to kill you and your family when you are just trying to help with the injuries they got from fighting. When you spend 30 minutes or more working on a patient, giving CPR, providing advanced life support, then you hear that A&E staff gave up shortly after you handed the patient over….and then you pass that person’s relatives in the corridor…

“Here’s a number you can call if it’s too much.”

This isn’t something that can be changed overnight, and I don’t have any answers or solutions, I only have my own experience and knowledge of what others have been through.

My strong hope is that the Ambulance Service in Scotland, now these issues have been highlighted, now has to act, positively. Maybe other television companies will pick up the story in England, Wales and Ireland. Until the public are aware of the quiet suffering that all emergency workers go through, suffering that sometimes costs their own lives, not much will change.

During my time on the road I saw how my colleagues reacted, I saw the brash, faux toughness, the hard act. I even did it myself. But there comes a time when that doesn’t work anymore. For me, that time was when I left the service. My defenses fell because they werent being topped up for another shift. My support mechanism (my colleagues) was gone. Suddenly I had to face everything I’d seen and done on my own. I can’t heap enough praise on the people around me, the ones who tolerated me at that time. But there were people who didn’t wish to tolerate it, and friendships ended, making it harder. Nevertheless, I got through it with the help of the ones who stayed, and I know of others in the same position.

I’ve spoken in other posts of one friend who didn’t. This post is for them, and the ones like them. For the families and people they leave behind.

Maybe it’s time to think about the health of the health workers. To start monitoring their mental health, to start giving them regular mental health checks. To start saving the lives of the people who save lives.

One out, one in. The prequel

One out….

You never forget the first patient you lose. Mine was a frail elderly person who lived close to my ambulance station at the time. The job came in as a cardiac arrest, and that’s exactly what it was. We got there very quickly, the patient’s heart had stopped, and it was my job to try to save them. I began CPR, the first few chest compressions broke some ribs. The dull crack is audible across the room. My partner was setting up the O2 bag and mask, they looked over at me and nodded encouragingly. That was a sound I would hear many times during my career. Some adrenaline injections (for the patient!), and 20 minutes of CPR without any signs of self sustained heart activity dictated we stopped and declared the patient’s life ‘extinct’. But this was my first. Surely there was more we could do, something we had missed? My partner handed me the paperwork and I filled it out, just like I had been taught during my training.

Later, I reflected on the broken ribs with my partner. “It’s perfectly normal” they said. That’s exactly what it became to me. It was an indication that we were pressing down hard enough to make the patient’s heart pump blood properly. “Broken ribs will repair, stopped hearts need help” – I remember my instructors telling us as raw recruits. They didn’t explain the heart-sinking feeling we would experience each time it happened. It was a blunt reminder that this was a real person you were dealing with.

I lost count of the deceased patients I saw, each one making me harder inside. I had to be to cope. You have to treat them as ‘jobs’ not people. You didn’t know most of them before, so you couldn’t be upset. We joked among ourselves about ‘killing’ patients each time deaths occurred during shifts, not because we were twisted or enjoyed it, but because it was a way of coping with it.

If the patient was ‘gone’ before we arrived then distancing yourself was easier. If you knew them, usually as a regular, it was a bit tougher. The really hard ones were the ones you were talking to when you arrived. The ones who went into some form of arrest in front of you.

One patient who arrested on me lived in a nursing home. The staff were quick to point out the patient had a DNAR (Do Not Attempt Resuscitation – a legal document that prevents medical intervention in such situations). We asked to see the document as, without it, we must continue life support. The document arrived and we watched as the patient slowly faded away. As we had accepted the duty of care for that patient, we couldn’t leave until there were no more signs of life. Watching a life slip away in front of you is a strange experience. It’s difficult to explain the emotions involved, but none are good.

Then the hard walls go up again and control gives you a meal break. It’s a bizarre thing, but even now there’s not much will put me off food.

Coping mechanisms keep you going…..until something comes along that weakens them.

Recently I’ve heard of some charities that offer physical and practical support for crew members. Charities, not ambulance services themselves, not the NHS, although it looks like most only operate in England and Wales. I have heard, however, that one ambulance service (possibly more) has recently implemented a more practical support service for its staff. It will be interesting to see how it works.

One such charity, PTSD999, has recently employed the services of a rock legend to help record a version of the late David Bowie’s song Heroes. Please look them up on iTunes or Amazon. The band is called Burn Out (enough said). Just 99p gets you an amazing song and helps them provide such an important service. The charity offers support to all types of emergency workers, please support these guys and other charities like them. We hope the song does well. Their tagline is “help save the lives of those that save yours”.

So yes, deaths affect us but, most importantly, don’t forget that each time one life fades away a new one is created somewhere. We could be heroes, but that’s not why we do it….

One out, one in.

The Ambulance Service, possibly the whole NHS, has a number of “superstitions” or beliefs – the word ‘cancer’ isn’t mentioned much, usually replaced by ‘ca’, the word ‘quiet’ is never used for fear of unleashing mayhem and madness. Then there’s the belief among many crews that, when a person dies, somewhere a new life is born. That one worried me most.

I had never been a fan of babies. In our training we were told they were aliens, that their bodies didn’t behave in the same way as adult bodies, and that they had ways of controlling your mind through loud, sustained noises. Also that the substances their bodies produce require hazchem protocols to be in place. That’s probably why I managed to avoid any being delivered in my ambulance during my career.

I had a few near misses – a long emergency drive in blizzard conditions, using every driving skill I’d been taught, terrified some other driver would do something silly that might cause us to crash, but I got us to the maternity hospital in time! Dropping an expectant mother off then hearing the new baby cry as we wheeled our trolly out of the ward.

One memorable birth involved a father who was known to be violent to emergency personnel. We were told to wait in the vacinity of the flat until the police arrived before entering. Little did we realise that we had parked in a spot visible to the flat. The first we knew was the father tapping on the passenger window of the ambulance. My partner lowered the window slightly, expecting something bad. “it’s out! The baby is out. What should I do?” he said excitedly. We established that the baby was breathing and the mother was well, then advised him to let the mum hold the baby and make sure baby was kept warm, and that we’d be there as soon as the police arrived.” ok” he said cheerily, and trotted back to see his new child. Once the police arrived we went in. All was indeed well, and we let the father cut the chord. So much for violent, there were happy tears in that man’s eyes, it was heartwarming.

I’m not really proud of the fact none were born in my ambulance, but I am slightly relieved. New life is an amazing thing, genuinely a miracle of nature, but babies are terrifying!

One out, one in. I’ll try to explain the first half next time….

It’s based on a true story… Honestly!

Of course I’m talking about the well know UK television show based in the ED of a well known, entirely fictional, English hospital. While I used to watch it purely for the clinical inaccuracies and the abnormally dramatic lives of the staff, now some of the the storylines are close (sometimes very) to jobs and realities I have dealt with. Most recently; Man down, the loss of a colleague. During my career that spanned more than a decade, a number of fellow ambulance colleagues passed away. Some through illness, others in accidents, one more tragic. Most I didn’t know too well, others i knew a bit better, all were sad and their loss was felt across the service. The latter I trained with.

I knew the person closely for 10 weeks, we trained together back at the start of my career. They were a major help towards me passing the exams, a close friend for those weeks away from home, then I never saw them again. but that didn’t ease the impact the news of their passing had. I don’t know the full story, but I know that the job we did had a big involvement in their passing, and that greater support and intervention may have prevented it. I recently met up with a friend who was closer to them. The loss has been very obvious in that friend’s life but, thankfully, support is finally in place for him. But it came from his GP, not from within an Ambulance Service.

The coming episodes of the TV series apparently show the paramedic, and other ED staff left behind after the loss of their colleague, slip into a dark places. I remember the last radio call for paramedic Jeff on the program, my colleague received none of that. Circumstances may be different, but the emotions are the same, as are the questions in peoples’ minds – once again, could more have been done to prevent it?

Ambulance services across the country need to step up care of their staff. I loved my job, but most ambulance crews see and go through things that change the way you view life. “here’s a number you can call….” never has, and never will be enough. I realise this post might ruffle a few feathers in a few ambulance divisions but I hope that, rather than the usual brushing problems under the carpet, they might try to change things if that’s the case. When someone feels unsafe, unsupported by the organisation they work for, something is very wrong!

The TV show may be fictional, but some of the characters and stories are closer to life than you might think. Yes, this post might read like an angry grumble about the lack of support available to ambulance crew members, probably because it is, but I’ve not even brushed the surface of the problem. No one should be abandoned for doing their job, for trying to save lives.

For every “Jeff”, every “Sam” and every “Iain” out there……