You know a quality ambulance station when you find these celebratory beauties hiding in the cutlery drawer.
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.
Here’s to all the lost boys.
The boys who watch with hard eyes from the corners of rooms and from the shadows across the street. Weight on the balls of their feet. Ready to run.
The boys who stood on a box in the kitchen to make dinner tonight for themselves and their siblings as mum was drunk.
The boys who end up in handcuffs when the rage inside just can’t be contained. Legs strapped together, screaming.
The boys who try to cut, burn, drink and smoke the pain away.
The boys who starve themselves.
The boys who aren’t good enough. Never will be. GET OUT OF THIS HOUSE!! YOU’RE USELESS!!
The boys who are dads doing their best, yet to grow into their shoulders or potential.
The boys who shoot up in the park, unconscious while others rummage through their pockets and steal their last cigarette.
The boys covered in bruises, spitting blood onto the pavement.
The boys who live on friends’ sofas.
The boys who are never told they are loved.
The boys standing on the bridge over the train tracks asking themselves why not?
Here’s to all the lost boys.
You deserve to be found. I hope you are. I hope it’s not too late.
True things I have learned working as a paramedic:
1) Life is neither fair nor unfair. It just is, and sometimes what it is is shit. On occasion it is glorious. Often both extremes are out of your control. Sometimes we need to look to the shovel in our hands to explain the hole we are standing in / hill we are king of.
2) There is no such thing as Sod’s Law although boy does it sometimes feel like there is.
3) Saying the word ‘quiet’ out loud does not bring about the apocalypse but never fails to raise colleagues’ blood pressure.
4) There is rarely ‘enough time’ with the people you love. “I wish we’d…” is one of the saddest phrases you’ll ever hear. Do it now. Right now.
5) Alcohol is not taxed heavily enough.
6) Try not to be really ill and have a cute dog as it divides your health professional’s attention.
7) If the maternity ward send you home as ‘not progressed enough’ just camp out in the car park. Or else put the kettle on for me. Milk, no sugar.
8) The majority of carpets are designed to appear clean and dry until paramedics kneel on them.
9) Every day’s a school day.
10) “Hold my pint and watch this” never ends well. In particular, the lift from Dirty Dancing is strictly reserved for professionals in lakes and should be specifically banned from pub gardens.
You’re welcome xxx
Our ambulance service lost a colleague to cancer recently. They were only 41, with young children and there are lots of people grieving. It is unfair and cruel. As paramedics we are only too aware of how unfair and cruel the world can be. Reminders rob us of our fragile and deceptive sense of control. We can’t fix it. We have to accept it, even when that feels like swallowing broken glass and our hearts break.
After the funeral, with the sea of green uniforms, the tears and the stories, comes the void.
I decided to do something positive for my station. Then thought maybe I could do a few things. Stuff it, why not do 41 things. To remember a brave paramedic. One random act of kindness for every year of their life.
We had a cake week and raised over £70 for the hospice that cared for them in their final days. Loads of people baked, even more ate. Chocolate cake for breakfast became pretty standard. We organised a dog walk and picked up litter on a local beach. Left sweeties in colleagues’ pigeon holes, boxes of ice lollies in the freezer, donated phone chargers to station for those caught short.
We still have lots to go. It may take a while, but it’s good to be doing something. Something to make people smile. Because while there are things we can’t fix, there can always be kindness. Kindness and chocolate cake for breakfast.
Sometimes ambulances are depressing places. A reminder that you are ill and going back to hospital AGAIN, when all you wanted was a quiet Sunday at home watching the football and eating lunch with the grandkids.
At times like these it’s hard to find a silver lining. It just sucks. When all else fails I sometimes ask who their favorite band is. Then, if we’re in a newish truck with a Bluetooth radio connection, I play it. Loudly.
This is how I ended up doing a hospital run to AC/DC. I’ve done them before to Glenn Miller, Nina Simone and The Who. Sometimes you get a smile. Sometimes you see the monitoring going squiffy when the finger the oxygen saturation probe is attached to is tapping away to the rhythm of the song. Ambulances have pretty good acoustics if you turn the music up loud enough. Loud enough so that the patient’s can’t hear me singing is usually preferable for all concerned.
However, an unfortunate byproduct of this has been getting tunes stuck in my head. Humming AC/DC’s “if you want blood… you got it” while strolling into A&E was not my finest moment.