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Life on the Beat

The Next Generation

Many years ago, my grandfather was a police officer. Before he died, he started writing a book about his peculiar encounters whilst “walking the beat”. I was only twelve when he passed away, with no inkling that I ever wanted to become a paramedic. Now I have my own stories to tell, only mine are more about keeping hearts beating…

The First of Many...

If I had a dollar for every time I was told “I could never do what you do”, I’d be at least $280 up by now. The truth is, you can absolutely do what we (paramedics) do. Because, like any job, you get taught exactly how to do it. The difference is, when I walk into an emergency, I have the benefit of knowing what I’m about to walk into. Before I step through your door, I am already mentally prepared for what I’m about to see. I’ve already decided which bits of equipment to bring in with me, I may have already started calculating drug doses on the drive over. You told me everything I needed to know when you made the phone-call. It wasn’t a shock to me in the same way it was for you. And that’s not because I am immune to the horrors. It’s not because I’m desensitised. It’s not because I’ve developed a black sense of humour. It’s because I had time to process it all before I’d even arrived.

I believe when people say they “can’t do what we do”, it’s because they don’t have a set of skills to fall back on. Their immediate reaction requires thought without hesitation, where a paramedics’ reaction has become autonomous over time. Panic only sets in when a person wants to help – but doesn’t know how or what to do. And there-in lies the key to what prompted the conception of my own little first aid company…. Knowledge. In time, regular training becomes engrained in your muscle memory. And slowly but surely the fear subsides as the confidence to step in and take action in an emergency grows.

For us as paramedics, the gravity of a situation often doesn’t tend to hit home until long after the adrenaline has worn off, long after we have handed the patient over at hospital. Sometimes it takes hours, and sometimes days. But you can be sure we carry at least a little bit of your bad day around with us forever more.

I remember the first dead body I ever saw. I was lucky enough to be eased into the idea of death. He was an elderly gentleman who lived alone. He was in his dressing gown, sitting comfortably in his recliner chair with one leg up on the coffee table in front of him. He looked like he was sleeping, appearing comfortable and certainly at ease. I remember how cold he was to touch, almost wax-like. It’s something you’ll never truly understand until you experience it for yourself. I wondered who this man was? What stories and secrets he holds, how many people had he left behind?
From what I could see, he was a very organised fellow. Bills were laid out on the table in order of which needed to be paid next and he’d listed his medications and dosages in a booklet with impeccably neat handwriting. On the day of his death he was obviously concerned about his blood pressure because he’d been documenting it on the hour, every hour. It was consistently high. Perhaps he had chest pain, perhaps he felt dizzy. Whatever the case, he knew something was wrong.
But what interested me most was the stoic nature of this gentleman. If he was concerned about his high blood pressure (enough to document it so frequently) then why didn’t he call anyone?
Why didn’t he ask for help?

As someone who had always been quite scared of my own mortality in my early twenties, I later came to realise that this was only because I didn’t understand death. In the early days of my career I tried to learn everything I could about it and more often than not I was overcome with a morbid sense of curiosity. I wanted to know how it happened, what could have been done differently, did they suffer or slip away peacefully? I wanted to know what a 3-day old, bloated body looked like. I wanted to study the mangled anatomy of a body after a fight with a train. I wanted to understand how and where rigor mortis sets in first. I wanted to grasp the concept of life… and more importantly, it’s fragility.

But with each exposure, came a heaviness to carry. I’d seen colleagues buckle under that heaviness. In fact there was a time there where we lost 6 paramedics in quick succession to that weight. I was one of the youngest paramedics on road at the time I entered the service and several years later I struggled to understand how anyone could carry the weight of another 35 years in the emergency services (more if they kept upping the age of retirement!). The accumulative effect of stress on the body manifests itself in very physical ways. Add in a sprinkle of pure sleep deprivation, ridiculously unnatural shift patterns and forced overtime with no guaranteed breaks and you’ve got yourself a recipe for burnout. In fact, they warn you before you even finish your initial training that the average paramedic only lasts an average of 5 – 7 years.
Which got me thinking….
Surely it would be a cheaper exercise to focus on retaining staff rather than teaching new recruits?
Surely those more experienced clinicians who have been around a while should be an invaluable asset? Why do we let them leave?
Then I remembered… It’s a business.

It wasn’t until much later on that I came to the conclusion that if I didn’t absolutely have to see the deceased, I wouldn’t go out of my way to do so. Because it meant exposing myself to things most humans are fortunate enough never to experience in a life-time. As a general rule, if you can smell the body before you even enter the home – there is nothing to be done. And if the cops are saying you don’t need to see this one… then don’t. We would offer them the same courtesy if we arrived on scene first.

While we are equipped to deal with your stresses and the absolute worst days of your life, know that as we attempt to ease your pain sometimes it means slowly adding to our own. While there’s no denying that a bad day at work for us is a really bad day, we can’t forget all the beautiful things we are fortunate enough to witness along the way. We get to watch babies take their first breaths, we get to add a little sunshine to a lonely, old ladies’ day, we get to witness raw acts of human kindness. And on the rare occasion, we get to shake the hand of someone we helped survive.
Which is pretty damn special.

For me, I found my peace with the concept of death in an elderly gentleman that slipped away amongst his rose garden. It was almost poetic. His family said that he loved his gardening, and spent all his time tending to his beautiful roses. We placed a pillow under his head and popped a blanket up to his shoulders as if he were just asleep. Death can be peaceful. It is certainly nothing to be feared.

At the end of the day we are all human – with only a certain amount of heart beats.
Don’t waste your time on things that rob you of those precious beats unnecessarily.

 

Alicia White
Alicia White

Registered Paramedic - Perth, W.A.