Recently, I asked someone who I do not know to spend some time on a video call with me. That’s right, a total and complete stranger. Not only a person whom I have never met, but also works in an entirely different area of healthcare. Why? My gut told me that he would share a perspective that would be worth hearing.
Mike justifiably lays claim to a rich and varied employment background. With an engaging smile and a calm voice, he offered that he has worked in law enforcement, firefighting, emergency medical services, bartending, and is currently a pastor of a local church. Not only does Mike minister to his congregation, he also still works full time as a paramedic and instructor in an Emergency Medical Technician program. I realized quite quickly that Mike has seen some wild stuff over the years. At this stage in his life, there is very little that shocks him.
He and I “met” on a Facebook page called Project Hope: EMS. This group offers support and a safe place for those in EMS to connect with one another when struggling with PTSD. It is also a fine forum to reach out for assistance in locating resources. Mike’s post about using an app to help manage his PTSD symptoms caught my eye. Who doesn’t like a helpful tool that is, quite literally, at your fingertips?
Mike and I shared a few thoughts about our time in healthcare. We both come from an era where showing emotion was not encouraged, but construed as a sign of “weakness”. Back in the day, the “weak” were aggressively culled from the healthcare herd. Mike quickly learned to stealthily tuck away the job-related emotional trauma and ignore it. He explained that he worked hard to ensure that each horrible call: the dead bodies, the screaming parents of injured children, the endless rounds of CPR in a moving vehicle… was securely stowed away in a locked box on a shelf. The closet used to store these boxes of crippling memories and emotions soon had to be replaced by an entire warehouse as the number of experiences mounted.
Mike continued to work diligently providing safe, compassionate patient care while meeting the productivity demands of the business. After all, healthcare IS a business. And, then, one day it all collapsed. Mike had placed one too many boxes on the shelves of his warehouse; suddenly, all of the demons contained in those boxes broke open the locks and emerged. Bad calls and the sights that cannot be unseen had been released. Mike found himself not only struggling, but also tagged with the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Mike pointed out that it is difficult for those served to see their healthcare providers as regular people – they only want to see us “on a really bad day and, then, we have to make everything better for them.” He shrugged his shoulders and observed, “We are supposed to be something more than just human.” From the years of living in a proverbial bunker with his EMS family, Mike understands that those on the frontlines of emergency services are extremely vulnerable to the fall-out from the repetitive stress and trauma of their daily work. They are, in fact, quite human. He is quick to point out that first responders have high rates of PTSD, suicide, divorce, and substance abuse.
I inquired how that diagnosis of PTSD felt in relation to the warrior spirit that forms the backbone of the EMS skeleton. Mike offered that after reflecting on it, he decided to sit with the PTSD and get to know it. He has learned to recognize what changes and accommodations have to be made in order to live fully. He no longer works at a job that requires him to sleep at the fire station while on call. He maintains an awareness of escalating physical responses to triggering events. Personally, Mike has found healing through a return to God and his foundation of faith.
Perhaps, most importantly, he has reached out and discovered ways to stay connected with people when the demons bare their teeth. This connection is where I found Mike – on Project Hope: EMS. I wondered out loud how Mike had found this group on Facebook. He chuckled and told me that it was through a bunch of motorcycle enthusiasts known as “Road Docs” – EMS on wheels, I gather. We are meant to live in community and these groups offer just that to those in the trenches of healthcare. The members of this bike gang have been on those bad calls and understand the feelings that linger; they function as the lifelines that keep one another safe.
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Mike one of my favorite questions. I inquired what he would pack in an emergency self-care kit for the ‘young ones’ coming up in the profession. My friend has a unique perspective, he has not only survived the battles, but has also leaned into helping the others in the bunker. He is a teacher and mentor for those heading into EMS. And, he knows how very little self-care is discussed or encouraged. Mike’s response was practical – he would tell them to always have the number of someone to call after a bad shift. I asked what he hopes that the person on the other end of the line would do. His response was elegant in its simplicity – simply be present and listen without judgement. Just be there.
It is time to mindfully shift healthcare culture to one of self-care and support for all of those in the bunker. I get it because I also spend my life managing the impact of PTSD. I am committed to supporting Mike’s efforts by not only utilizing lifelines when times are challenging for me, but also answering those calls when others are struggling. Being a lifeline is a great legacy, indeed.