Like the Drugs We Use, Being a Paramedic has an Expiration Date
*Originally posted in 2012. These were my thoughts a few years after dealing with my PTSD ordeal.
I’ve been a paramedic for thirteen years, eleven of which on a fairly busy department. When I set out to become a paramedic, I longed for the excitement and rush of racing against time and nature to bring someone from the brink of death. I dreamed of being the guy that people called when there was no one else who could help them. Guiding me in a sense was my older cousin, Greg, to whom I’ve always admired.
As I was beginning life as a paramedic, Greg was slowly realizing what I have only recently learned. He was losing that thrill—that special drive—being a paramedic brings to a person. Though I saw it happening to him, I couldn’t fathom it ever happening to me. Life as a paramedic is tough. I’m not complaining because it can be the greatest job in the world, but it is hard at times. Part of our job is to forget each horrible call in time to focus on the next. For the most part, I’ve done that throughout my career. But I’m not a robot. Whereas most people have never watched a person die, I’ve done it sometimes more than once in a single day. While most people couldn’t imagine holding a baby who has been shaken so violently that they die in their arms, I have done that as well. Burned-up children, murdered people, horrible car accidents. The list goes on and on. It is those calls, the ones where a family is driving behind their son’s vehicle when he hits a tree and dies on impact, that add up over the years to set in a special place in my heart and brain. Most paramedics, I imagine, carry similar weight within and continue carrying such burdens throughout their careers. But then for some paramedics, a single run can make things even worse. For me, it was a car accident on a beautiful fall day. For others, it'll be something entirely different or it may never happen at all. Everyone's different. Though I’d seen death of every imaginable type, I wasn’t prepared for that wreck. You might ask why it was different and I’ll try to explain here as best I can. That day, in the back seat of a destroyed minivan, I looked into the dying eyes of a little boy. In that split second, I made a subconscious connection with him that few people have ever had with a person at their most devastating moments. And in his eyes, I saw him die. I couldn’t move for a second. I wanted to call a time-out and just hug him and tell him everything would be all right. But I knew better. I had work to do. We had to try everything. Outside the van, with his mother praying next to us and police officers holding sheets up around us so those passing by couldn’t see this little boy at his worst, my crew and I worked our best while secretly knowing our efforts were likely in vain. Despite the doctors’, nurses’, and our best efforts, several hours later in a hospital bed that little boy officially died. The wreck had killed him. You know what? In some ways that wreck killed me as well. I didn’t consciously say I never wanted to be a paramedic again but the joy of my job was gone. So that was my call, the call that finally ruined me as a paramedic. It took me awhile to understand that I’d passed my expiration date like my older cousin had so many years before, but I eventually realized I wasn’t the same paramedic that I once was. Don’t get me wrong, my skills are fine. Heck a lot of them I could do in my sleep. But my zeal—my love of the work—is gone. Maybe forever. It turns out my expiration date was September, 2007. Like any medication past its expiration date, I can still do the job but I’m not as strong as I once was. Thanks for listening.
A note from today: That was what I wrote when I was trying to come to terms with how I felt as a paramedic at the time. I have since gotten better. Even though I'm better now, I still believe there is an expiration date on being an active paramedic on a busy medic truck for a large percentage of us. Some people hit that moment sooner and some people spend their entire careers without reaching that limit. It's hard to say who will be affected by what and when but it is crucial that organizations realize this point and make policies to recognize it.