Protecting against “that call”

When you first become an emergency medical technician (EMT) or a firefighter, you look for shirts that boast about your pride for your field. I was no different. One that I had on my wish list was pretty cool. It had the Star of Life; metal-looking angel wings coming on the sides; and metal-looking scrolls that read, “Emergency Medical Technician” across the top and “Service Before Self” across the bottom. I loved it. I wanted it. I am very glad I did not get it.

I have been in this field only for six years, but I grew up in it. I knew the hard work that goes into emergency response. Supper talk consisted of stories from calls and emergency room (ER) shifts (patient privacy was observed, of course). We had rules that other kids our age did not have. In fact, as grown adults, my brother, sister, and I still refuse to get on a four-wheeler. We have our snowmobiles, but we do not touch those four-wheelers. I knew some of the sacrifices—the missed meals, getting called out on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. I knew coming home bruised or occasionally bloodied was a very good possibility. I knew it could mess with your head; you need someone you can talk to about bad calls—not even bad calls but calls that mess with you. My parents made sure I knew all of this going into this field. I was prepared—until I wasn’t.

I was told before I went to basic and fire class that everyone has that one call that will get to them. I was told in class that everyone has that one call that will get to them, that it might not even be a call but a type of call that involved amputation, rape, abuse, and so on. I began preparing myself, building defenses in my mind. I figured the case that would get to me would have something to do with children.

I had a few medical calls in my fire department before I began working in private transport; nothing stands out. My first trip after orientation at the private transport company was a rape victim. Other than feeling incredibly awful because I did not know what to say or do, there was nothing I could do to help her. I wasn’t really affected by that call. I transported numerous abused kids; my partner only had to drag me out of the ER, his hand over my mouth, once to keep me from going off on negligent parents. I calmed down and went back to being purely professional. Between the private transport calls and the fire department, I saw and treated every scenario I had anticipated minus the terrorist attack, but I received training specific to that scenario and did fine.

I have been called heartless quite a few times by friends, family, and coworkers because of how matter-of-factly I approach calls and life. Most of the time, I just waved it off because I knew that I process my emotions differently than other people, but I had begun to wonder if I was ever going to get that call. I did not want it, but I was getting nervous about what it was going to be. The only type of call left was the death of a coworker. That happened this past weekend.

My former partner and one of my best friends was one of the kindest, sweetest, gentlest people you could ever hope to meet. He was the paramedic you wanted to work on your loved one. He put everyone before himself. If anyone needed help, he was there. He truly demonstrated the “Service Before Self” mentality so many of us strive for. Now, I’m waiting to hear when his viewing and funeral service will be.

It was an accidental death. He had a great support system—his family, his current partner, another of his former partners, and me. We all were there for him, day or night.

Yes, our field requires sacrifice. We sacrifice our time. We are willing to sacrifice our safety. Our kids may have rules that none of their friends have because of what we see in the field. The general population has no idea of what we and other emergency personnel (law enforcement, military, ER staff) go through on a regular day at work and what we carry home with us. I am willing to come home black and blue if it means staying with a grieving mother, keeping her safe, while her child is pulled out of a motor vehicle accident. I have made myself a barrier between hysterical family members and the nursing staff trying to save that family’s loved one. I would do all of that again.

However, we cannot continue to take care of ourselves only after everyone else has been saved or helped because that mindset will never allow us rest. We cannot continue this “Service Before Self” mentality; we will spread ourselves too thin and lose ourselves. We cannot wait to react to the loss of a friend or a coworker. We need to improve prevention efforts.

Captain Dena Ali, Raleigh (NC) Fire Department, and Battalion Chief Daniel DeGryse, Chicago (IL) Fire Department, are two of many who are working hard at raising awareness of mental health risks, suicide, and prevention for fire/EMS workers. My partner did not commit suicide; but if mental or behavioral health was emphasized more in our fields, we all, including him, may have recognized the signs of unhealthy coping mechanisms and helped him before the battle became steep and uphill. On scene, the number one rule is always to be aware of your surroundings and not become a victim. Why does this “don’t become a victim” mindset end when the call is over? We need to take care of ourselves off duty as well as on duty.

The night I found out about my partner, my department received a call for a similar scenario. I jumped up to go, but I stopped. For the first time in my life, I questioned my ability to compartmentalize. Would I be able to separate my grief over losing my friend from what I needed to do, or would I visualize my partner the entire time and let that affect my decisions?

My officers were aware of what had happened. I was not faulted for not responding. I will go on the next one. There’s always a next one. I know this won’t be that call for me, but for one night, it was.

Kelly Barrett
EMT-B/Firefighter
ACSM-Certified Exercise Physiologist
Spencer (OH) Community Fire District

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