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….

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……

You only live…..once

Despite the James bond book/film that claims otherwise, the above is unfortunately very true! When it’s your turn, nothing can change it. Some people, however, choose to bring their time forward. Warning: this post is a blunt one!

Many times we’d be called to an “Overdose”. Sometimes it was a drug user who had overdone it unintentionally, often we could reverse the Overdose with a drug we carried, other times we were too late and the patient had passed away (usually before the 999 call was made). There were also the patients who wanted someone to pay them some attention. These were the ones who took 5 – 10 paracetamol or ibuprofen, thinking that it wouldn’t kill them. Some were spoiled kids who’s parents were too busy, others were so sad and low that you desperately wanted to hug them, but that wasn’t part of the job – all they wanted was someone to listen. None of the patent types I’ve mentioned actually wanted to die.

Then there were the ones who did. The ones who’s lives had gotten into such a state, or who had reached such a low point, that they saw no point continuing with their lives. These patients generally managed to see their wish through, and we were only called when someone found them.

Fatalities were part of the job, and I always managed to treat the majority as just that – jobs. I never knew them, I’d never met them, and I couldn’t tell you what they looked like once we left them. That was the easiest way to deal with death. They were someone else’s loved one, it was their job to grieve. But the ones who took their own lives, they were different. I was called to an unconscious patient, and rolled up to find a very drunk foreign gentleman. He was quite cheery and chatted a lot about how he had come to the UK to work, but he missed his family. Two weeks later, we were called to cut him down from a tree in the middle of nowhere. Another job involved a 15 year old, who was being cut down from a tree in their back garden by the police as we arrived. I remember that one, mostly because there was a strange peace about the scene, and the patient almost looked relieved. Then the mother came out and shattered the peace, understandably hysterical when they saw their dead child.

Then there was the parent who chose to end their life in the stairwell of their home, in full view when their ex when they brought their young children home. I’ll remember that as a job, their children will never forget it for many other reasons.

But we were given the usual 5 minute rest afterwards, then it was on to the next job. No support, no debrief, no health checks. Yes, we chose to do the job. Yes, it was all part of the job. No, no-one is hard or tough enough to deal with situations like that, or worse, and not be affected. The emotions involved in these jobs vary – anger at the selfishness, despair that society has let these people down, sadness for the family and friends.

Then the screen lights up and we go to the next job…..