Of all the qualities a paramedic must have – compassion, problem solving, communication skills, drinking boiling hot beverages in 35 seconds flat – resilience is the one quality that we discuss the least and perhaps need the most.
It is expected. You decided to become a paramedic. You knew what the job would entail and you believed you could cope with it. End of discussion. As students and new staff stroll through the doors on their first day we rarely expect them to lack compassion but we judge them furiously for their resilience – too young, too niaive, too soft. We dread being present when their resilience is tested and perhaps found wanting. We know we cannot protect them from what they may see.
Those who have been in the service for many years sometimes wear their ‘forged in the fires of hell’ resilience as a suit of armor. Telling stories of jobs that make the new staff go pale with a smile on their face as they eat their lunch. Such armor is often brittle.
We are all reluctant to face a glaring and dangerous truth. There is no such thing as ‘resilient enough to be a paramedic’. There is only our ability to cope right this second versus the carnage we encounter; and our ability to cope is a fluid and unpredictable thing. It depends on how tired we are, what is going on at home, the exact nature of the carnage at our feet and the support we feel we have in picking it up. I’ve seen experienced staff hide PTSD for years before one day just leaving. Some end their lives. Some stay and medicate themselves against the worst of it.
I’ve also seen young, brand new staff members witness horrors that fall far too close to home, square their shoulders through the tears and plough on.
Resilience is not something we have ‘enough of’ and it is not fixed. It can be nurtured and strengthened just as it can be eroded and undermined.
I believe we have a duty to each other when we think about resilience. A duty to see it not as a finite resource but as a campfire against the cold that we all should be tending. Because to let the flames die down is to invite wolves.
So if I am to add logs to my campfire and those of my colleagues, what does that look like? I think it starts with being brave enough to admit when our firewood is running low and curious enough to recognize it in others. This means really listening and making the time to act on what we hear.
It means challenging criticism, of others and that which people voice about themselves. Believing people should ‘man up’ about anything is unhelpful (and, let’s face it, sexist).
Someone is a shit magnet? Make some time to talk to them. I am guilty of commenting that if any serious accident has happened then ‘X’ must have attended it (every station has one). I don’t think I really considered how the jobs that earned them the reputation may be affecting them. They seem fine, but did I really look? Was I really listening?
We’ve all got to do things for the first time, and it’s often hard. It’s allowed to be. We should acknowledge that. The 20th time can sometimes be harder. We should acknowledge that too.
I sometimes hear that ‘morale is poor on station’, as if people are a bit glum that the coffee is not to their taste or the TV signal went fuzzy. ‘The resilience of the team as a whole is low’ would be a more useful and worrying statement. Retention rates drop. Sickness rises. People dread coming to work.
It can’t be ignored.
It can be faced. Even if it is just one supportive conversation or cup of tea at a time. So I resolve to be more vigilant, to tend to the campfires and enjoy their warmth… because winter is coming.