WARNING TO NON-EMS PEOPLE: This post is pretty emotional. If you’re not emotionally equipped to handle really sad descriptions of EMS calls, don’t read it.
Here’s a revelation: EMS People are better suited to handling sadness than are laypeople. Of course we are. Not because we are necessarily any emotionally stronger than anyone else but because we have experience in dealing with it. As anyone could see, a good number of the situations we respond to and either assist with or observe are really sad. In my two decades or so of riding the ambulances I have come across more situations than I could possibly remember that I wouldn’t want to casually discuss outside of the industry for fear of really making laypeople very uncomfortable. A story that might turn into a running joke among your colleagues might just depress a layperson for weeks.
Like all medics, I have my coping mechanisms and some of them are healthier than the others, they include sarcasm, dark humor, clean humor, running, blogging, fishing, picking on my wife, playing with my kids, cats, and sarcasm. There are a few other things in there too, I’m a rich tapestry.
This blog gets read by mostly EMS people, but there are public people out there that read me too. For both of your benefit, I’m going to relate some stories here of calls that I’ve personally attended to over the years:
A 16yo male takes his 24yo soon-to-be brother in law out into the city for the 24yo’s bachelor party. On the way home, they’re both just obliterated after drinking all night. The 16yo boy is driving home and is going way too fast to notice the semi hauling gravel that pulls into the right hand lane of the 4-lane road they’re driving on. The kid notices it at the last second, swerving just in time to impact the passenger side of the car against the back of the semi trailer. The impact shears off the left side of the 24yo’s skull, popping out the left side of his brain and leaving it, mostly intact, in between the front seats of the car (I almost put my knee into it). The 24yo dies a not-so-immediate death (I don’t want to get into it. Hopefully it was mostly painless). I pronounced the 24yo dead and took care of this very intoxicated 16yo. He was barely able to comprehend the terror of the situation and was covered in blood and brains that formerly belonged to the man his sister was going to marry. He was unhurt but I ran him into the hospital anyway. How could I leave him there immersed in the terror of that scene, in the terror of what he was more or less responsible for?
A 19yo male comes home from the military and his friends throw him a house party. During the party the 19yo takes his 18yo male friend down to the basement of the house to show the friend a new pistol that the 19yo brought home with him. The friend takes the gun to look at it and playfully twirls it around his finger ‘Old West’ style in an attempt to be cool. When he does, the gun fires, shooting the friend from the chin through the top of the skull. When I got to him, he was still breathing and had a strong pulse however it was mostly his brain stem that was controlling the reflex. Most of his brain was splattered on the basement floor. We worked him, transported him to the trauma center, and I believe that they were able to harvest his organs.
- A man and his wife of upwards of twenty years are just bumming around the house on a nondescript weekday. It’s about lunch time and they’re going to eat at home before they go to the wife’s doctor appointment. The wife gets up to make sandwiches, gets to the counter, and slumps to the floor. She never woke up. We worked her very hard, but her heart had just decided that it had reached its allotted number of lifetime beats.
The above short summaries of calls that I’ve been to are sad. There’s no joke that can make them not sad. If you read this, there are two reactions I expect from you here:
For non-medical people: You’ve related these stories to yourself. You may be crying. You’ll think about them and your heart will go out to the unfortunate people involved. You’re sad.
- For EMS People: Don’t these sound like good calls? They were. Yep, they were sad and I felt very bad for the people that were involved. Good calls though. What’s for lunch?
I think I remember what I did after the above three calls. I think that it was profound although my memory is pretty foggy after all these years. After the first one, I cleaned up the truck and actually got to sleep the rest of the night. After the second I cleared and went to a few more calls and then had lunch. After the third I um, had lunch because it was lunch time.
EMS people can probably know what I’m talking about here. I call it “The Howl”. It’s the sound that a family member makes after you’ve transported their close loved one to the hospital where the patient is pronounced dead by the ER Doc before the family gets there. So there you are, cleaning your equipment while the ER staff makes the sad announcement to the family. Here comes The Howl of anguish that the family member makes when they hear the news. I’ve heard it time after time in hospital after hospital. It’s loud. It’s haunting. It haunts my dreams some nights. I say that The Howl is an example of direct sadness. Direct Sadness is the pain/sorrow/anguish/horror that a person feels when they are a primary person in the situation. In my position of hearing The Howl after working the patient and unsuccessfully trying to save their life I experience Indirect Sadness. For the coworkers that I tell the story to and the readers of this blog, “Splashed Sadness” is the term I use. I think that “Splashes Sadness” is what a person experiences when hearing a terribly sad story like that.
In this business, Splashed Sadness is everywhere. It is one of the hallmarks of professional EMS. Think about it like this, I will always remember a conversation that happened between a group of coworkers and me one nondescript morning some time ago. They told the story of a college age male that overdosed on illegal drugs, stopped breathing, and was resuscitated from asystole (flat-line) by the paramedic that was telling the story. He mentioned that the fiancé of the patient was in the ER with the most-probably brain-dead patient and was holding the patient’s hand and telling anyone that happened by that they were supposed to get married that weekend. He said that she just kept repeating “We’re getting married this weekend” over and over again.
The sadness contained in that story splashed on to me and I’ve remembered it to this day. It will probably be there tomorrow too…
I responded by asking if they recommended that she cancel the caterer. Then there were fart jokes and wrestling (It was an all male crew that day). That’s how I dealt with the splashed sadness. I try not to get any of it on me and I try to psychologically squeegee any of it that I do get on me off as quickly as possible by interjecting humor and sarcasm into the situation. Extreme humor to deal with extreme sadness.
EMS people gain experience in dealing with negative emotions and sadness through all of these routes, direct, indirect, and splashed. While I have dealt with Direct sadness in cases of the deaths of close loved ones including my father, I don’t want to deal with any more. I get indirect sadness a lot of the days that I show up for work, and splashed sadness happens every dang time I talk to a coworker or discuss a bad call with a peer. I’m splashing sadness on you all right now as you read the above stories. If you’re an EMS person, you can deal with the splashing. If you’re a layperson, I’m very sorry for doing that to you but I did warn you before you started reading. My theory is that the more experience you get with sadness, the better equipped you are to deal with it.
Or you go nuts.
Or you go nuts and start blogging and drinking martinis like I did.
Maybe I’ll get credit in a psychology journal for coining “Splashed Sadness” in EMS.