*Warning: this is a somewhat vivid post about my first code as a baby EMT. It happened on my first day as an EMT student on clinicals, over a year ago.*
Mechanically, I compress his chest. Up and down. Willing him to live. Willing the flat line on the monitor to show sign of electrical heart activity. I feel nothing in the minute. I am relying on my training to kick in, and I perform automatically. Doing compressions over and over. Counting them out loud so all around me can know where I am at in the cycle. Until a firefighter pushes me out of the way, and we swap places, so now I attempt to breathe for him.
I see the colour of his lips. I see the wires hooked up to him and trace them with my eyes back to the LifePak. The paramedics preparing to start an IO in his leg. The police officers standing nearby watching us work. The sun shining through the trees. The birds singing. The cars on the roadway nearby hurrying on their way, not knowing that we are fighting for someone whose life has already ended.
Eventually the lead paramedic calls it, and we all step back from what we’d been doing. We disconnect everything and gently cover him with a blanket. I and another firefighter even take the time to tuck in the blanket. Then we step away and pack up our gear. We get back on our rigs and continue our day. We don’t have time to decompress at the moment, and for now my defense mechanisms have kicked in and I still feel nothing.
It’s not the first time I’ve been around those who have died. I worked as a CNA for six years. I’ve assisted in post mortem care too many times since the age of sixteen. I have become somewhat used to it. But before this time, they’ve always been older people. You know? Those who were expected to die. I’ve had time to give them care and comfort in their last hours and minutes. But this…this was different.
He was so young. I looked at his face and thought how he was younger than me. He didn’t deserve to die, even if it was his choice to overdose on heroin. He was homeless. I could see the layers of his sleeves as they had been cut away for us to provide care. So many colours. As I did CPR, I wondered if anyone would miss him. Did he have a mom somewhere that was missing him? Was he a runaway? Would anyone care that he had died? No one on scene knew his name. He was a homeless junkie who overdosed in a public park.
Afterwards, the paramedics asked if I wanted to talk about it, but I couldn’t. I still felt nothing. I asked them generic questions about their treatment choice and some of the signs that I had noticed. But I went on with my day. I didn’t even think about it at the time. I didn’t realize just how those memories had seared themselves in my brain. Sounds. Smells. Colours. Sensations.
Then something triggered those memories. Another death. A suicide. And all these memories that I thought I had forgotten came rushing back. Once again I was reliving the scene. Reliving our actions. And even tho’ I knew we had done all we could, even though I knew there was no saving this young man (I could read the signs myself), I found myself becoming angry that he died. First I was angry at myself for not performing compressions or breathing well enough for him, even though the paramedics had told me I done the best job they had ever seen from a newbie EMT. Then I was angry at the young man for choosing to overdose that morning. Then I became angry at the paramedics for giving up so soon, even though I could see as well as anyone there was nothing short of a miracle that would bring this young man back. My brain could tell you all the logical reasons for why it wasn’t my fault or anyone’s fault in particular, but the feelings of anger were still there.
Support. Support from those who have experienced these things and know how it hits home sometimes. Support from friends even when they don’t understand what I’ve experienced or what I’m feeling about it. A hug from my supervisor that calmed me and healed the broken pieces just a little bit. Made me feel a little more whole again. Made my world a little more right side up again. Spent some time throwing questions and feelings at my Papa God, and found healing as He quietly held me and loved me.
Even though I know I will see more things like this in my career as an EMT, I know I can trust that with God I will always be able to pick myself back up and head back out into the field, ready to face another day. Sometimes I may need to take a step back and reset my focus by stepping away from the EMS world for a little, but I know that as long as this is what I am called to do, I will be able to do it. And I love it.