’tis the season

Christmas and New Year – the festive period. Parties, celebrations, presents, cheer, making merry, over indulgence, fights, depression, suicide……

It’s difficult to feel festive sometimes when your Christmas is filled with the latter. It’s sometimes known as “Suicide Season” by emergency personnel, a time when it becomes too much for some people and they try (and often succeed) to end the pain inside. Depression becomes a bigger problem for many who suffer, as they see everyone around them having fun and enjoying themselves. I’m not going to apologise for painting a bleak picture. It’s a very real one, and many ambulance staff are in the middle of it. It’s difficult not to feel it when your eyes are opened in the back of an ambulance.

Regular calls to city centres for broken ankles caused by crazy high heels and icy conditions. Revellers, drunk and incapable, filling hospital beds because there is nowhere else to take them, and to send them home could be fatal. Ambulances stocked with space blankets (large, foil blankets designed to help retain body heat) to wrap half dressed patients sitting on kerbs, feeling sorry for themselves.

Then there’s the obligatory Christmas Day stroke/heart attack. One Christmas Day I was on shift with a probationer. We began our shift at 6am and I explained we’d have at least one “stroke” or “heart attack” call that day to somebody’s granny or grandad. They told me I was being negative and that it was going to be a good day, so I suggested a small wager. It was an icy day, no snow, and we had a number of calls to elderly patients who had slipped and fallen on the way to the car as families were drawing together around the country. All our patients, and their relatives, were in good humour that morning. Then came Christmas lunch.

We had taken our own Christmas lunch in, and a couple of other crew members dropped by with goodies. Then it came – an elderly relative was having a heart attack after their lunch and was unresponsive. My partner was a tad disgruntled as we rushed to the ambulance. Because we worked twelve hour shifts, we drove six hours and attended patients for six. I had been attending all morning, now I was driver. We rushed to the job as I explained to my, somewhat naive, partner that it was probably nothing, and that the patient was probably just having a snooze. They called me a cynic and prepared themselves for the worst; having to tell a family that their loved one has passed away on Christmas Day is never pleasant. We arrived at scene and my partner ran inside, to find the elderly patient fit, well and wide awake, also extremely confused. Tests proved the patient healthy and that nothing untoward had happened. We left the family to enjoy the rest of their day and returned to our station. There I explained further the parasympathetic nervous system – simply explained, after a large meal the body diverts energy to digestion. This is why many people feel like a nap after something like…..Christmas lunch. For many elderly people this can be a deep sleep, often mistaken for a stroke or heart attack.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, and ambulance crews give sad news to many families, more poignant around this time of year. While the Ambulance crews walk away and go to the next job, the relatives are left mourning their loss, often tainting future Christmases for years to come.

I mentioned depression and suicide at the beginning of this post. It’s real, and we don’t always see it in daily life, but if you know someone who suffers from depression, you can make a difference by talking to them. Don’t overpower them, just let them know that you are there for them, watch them and their behaviour. If you suffer the horrible effects of depression yourself, and watching everyone else enjoying themselves takes you lower, talk to someone. Write a blog even!

Ambulance crews can go through a world full of other people’s emotions at this time of year. Some of those emotions can get through their defences sometimes. I watched a programme on TV this week that ended with some statistics, one being that 25% of the UK’s ambulance crews will experience PTSD, one in four! There is little or no support from most ambulance services, and little or nothing being done to lower these figures from inside. Often seeking support feels like, and is viewed as weakness or failure.

I’ve spoken about charities that offer support before, but public awareness is also important. PTSD999 is a charity that I’ve also highlighted, providing support to all types of emergency workers. They have just released a version of the song Heroes to raise funds for the work they do, and to raise awareness of the need for such services across all the emergency services. The song is, appropriately, Heroes and the band is called Burn Out. It costs 99p to buy on iTunes and Amazon Music. So, among the festivities and gift giving, help support the people who make it safer. Here’s a link to the video on YouTube (please buy the single): https://youtu.be/SZA1plZxBY0

Another way you can lift emergency workers is to show your appreciation – a simple “thank you” if you see them out and about, buy them coffee if you see them at the petrol station on a night shift. Simple things go a long way.

As the great philosopher, Michael Buble, once said: “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas….”.

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….

“But that only happens to soldiers!”

That’s actually what a friend said to me recently when I told them another friend, who is still with the Ambulance Service, had been signed off with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Until a few years ago, I’d have agreed with my friend, but now I know different.

It’s difficult to describe the emotional hardness you develop. When you walk into a drug den and see the addict, clearly dead, with the needle still in their arm. When you cut someone down from a tree. When you have to explain to someone that the last time they spoke to their partner was just that. I could go on, but there’s no need. The emotional hardness happens because the people you work with understand, and there’s an unconscious support there.

When I left the Ambulance Service that support ended overnight. I wasn’t aware at the time, but looking back I can see the signs and symptoms. My support mechanism ended overnight and I went through a form of PTSD. An ex-colleague and myself often chat about jobs we’d been called to, but sometimes…very often…that’s not enough. We recently lost another friend and fellow crew member that we both trained with, the job became too much and broke him. Now we have become acutely aware how huge the lack of support for ambulance crews all over the country is.

After a particularly nasty job, I was once given a phone number I could call, should I find I was struggling. For those who don’t know any ambulance crew members, they may appear kind and caring, and they are, but underneath they become a certain amount of tough and hard. It’s the only way they can survive. To call a number and talk to an anonymous person, who knows nothing about you, is beyond failure!

The purpose of this post is not to point the finger at the Ambulance service. It is to highlight the vulnerability of every person who works in an ambulance, and to highlight the need for a much greater system of support. I am fully aware that other services deal with the same situations, but perhaps someone else will write about it from their perspective.

Next time you see an ambulance go by with its lights flashing, spare a thought for the crew. Think about what might be going through their minds. When you go to sleep at night, think about the crew members, and what nightmares they might be having. If you know a crew member, show your support. Sometimes they look tough, but underneath they’re just normal people……….well, most of them are!

After I posted today’s blog, someone sent me this link. They only cover some parts of the country, but it’s a start: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/ambulance/mental-wellbeing-ambulance/

Another charity just released a single to help raise funds to provide assistance for emergency workers suffering PTSD. The charity is PTSD999, the band are Burn out and the song is (appropriately) a cover of the late David Bowie’s song Heroes. Download it from Amazon or iTunes for a meare 99p.