Through my personal journey as a paramedic, I have witnessed the unquestionable nearness of death, and the hidden expansiveness of life. I have travelled through destitute darkness, only to find the most radiantly beautiful light. I have trembled at evil, and rejoiced at true happiness. Simply put, throughout my career I have journeyed through the spectrum of life and death, touched each end, and have been privileged to share what I have learned along the way.
Knowledge of this life and death spectrum is obviously not reserved for just me. Throughout a paramedic’s career, he or she will experience this spectrum on such a massive scale! I’ve heard people say that paramedics and first responders, for lack of a better word, become ‘less-sensitive’ to this spectrum in order to ‘last in this career’. But I worry that over the years we don’t just remove our sensitivity to the death side of the spectrum. Inevitably, over time, many first responder’s awareness of the life end of the spectrum becomes less-sensitive too.
So how can we as first responders stay healthy amongst the tears we witness over the spectrum of our career? When death is bound to stare us straight in the eyes more times than we can count, how can we continue helping people with a healthy mind and body? My answer to this question came to me through an enlightening conversation I recently had with my good friend Rob Theriault, and it’s as simple, yet as profoundly complex as this; CONTINUE TO MINDFULLY APPRECIATE LIFE. This rang so true to me! By remembering to also focus on the precious moments of LIFE we experience as first responders, the spectrum of life and death balances out.
We impact the human race so profoundly! We are the last set of eyes many people look into. We are the last hand many people will hold. We are the last encouraging voice they may hear, and the last breath they will share with another human being. We are blessed with the privilege of being the ‘last of their lives’, and in these moments, rather than focusing on the inevitable death we know we are about to witness, and very often can’t control, we as first responders may be able to carry out a longer, healthier, more fulfilling career, if we focus on the person’s joys of life as well.
Is this easier said than done?…Most likely. And to be fair, many of you may do this already! But for those who don’t, I ask you to remember for a moment a time when you got to witness and experience the beauty of life amidst inevitable death. When was there a time that you stood back after a call and felt like you had made such a difference in your patient’s life? Or maybe their family’s life. What are the calls that changed your life for the better? When did you see a ‘rainbow in the sky’, after the ‘storm’. When did you witness a ‘thank you’ through a last breath. What is your paramedic ‘life’ story? Well allow me to share Rob’s:
“On one of my first shifts on the air ambulance helicopter in the 1980s, we flew up north to pick up an elderly male from a small hospital. He was involved in a house fire earlier in the morning and had sustained 3rd and 4th degree burns to over 80% of his body. I was new to the air ambulance and this was my first truly critically burned patient. I knew from the extent of his injury that he was dying and would likely die before the end of the day or within the next couple of days. Did he know he was dying? I wondered? He was conscious and relatively pain free because the nerve endings are destroyed with deep burns. But he couldn’t speak because he had a tube in his airway and we had him connected to a ventilator. By the time we loaded him into the helicopter, the sun was just on the edge of the early morning horizon. Our helicopter, a Bell 212, was noisy and shook in flight. From the look in his eyes, I could see he was anxious. As we lifted off I place a headset over his ears so that I could tell him what was going on during the flight and try to give him some reassurances. He couldn’t reply but he would blink his eyes in acknowledgement. My partner was busy re-taking vital signs and I monitoring his breathing and oxygen saturation. We flew just a hundred feet above the tree tops and when I could, I looked out the side window to see glistening lakes, tall trees, hills and the rising sun. It was truly beautiful. The patient was lying on his back and I told him that if he turned his head to the right he could see out of the helicopter. He turned and stared for the next twenty minutes. I looked at him, a man who would inevitably die, and the rising sun with light illuminating some areas while others were cast in shades and shadows. It was breathtaking and the contrast between this poor dying man and the sunrise ushering in a new day left an indelible memory.
The contrast between life’s endings and new beginnings, the resilience and fragility of the human body, would be a part of my experience for many years to come. It’s part of every paramedic’s experience. We see things that are unimaginable for most. In an odd way, I am happy others don’t see what we see. Their innocence makes me happy. I feel it’s my duty to deal with life and death so that others can be spared.
Years later when I was working back on the land ambulance, I recall a cold Sunday winter morning when we responded to a “jumper”. He had jumped off a bridge and was lying on frozen ground below. Resuscitation was futile and when we left the scene, the image of his traumatized body lingered in my mind. Less than ten minutes later we stopped at a café. It might seem odd to stop at a public café for a coffee after just witnessing a death, but the job goes on. I went inside and as I waited for my coffee I looked around to see customers sitting quietly, some conversing while others read the news or a book. They looked calm and peaceful. I took pleasure in the serene looks on their weekend relaxed faces. I smiled for them. I was genuinely happy for them. The contrast between the image of a dead body and the Sunday morning café reminded me of why I do what I do.”
I am so grateful that Rob shared these stories with me! They took me out of what was left of my PTSD mind! They made me smile and remember some of my own ‘beautiful life’ stories. It also made me think that, maybe us first responders don’t have to become ‘less-sensitive’ to death, if we appreciate the life human being’s experience even more.
*Rob Theriault is the President of the Ontario Paramedic Association, and has been a paramedic for 31 years and a professor for 13 years. A HUGE thank you to Rob for sharing his candid ‘life’ stories. 🙂