The Pandemic Paramedic
I am a paramedic. I have been for 10 years. I started this journey when I was only 21. Despite working for several employers in various roles and moving up license levels, none of my training or experience could have prepared me for what I was going to endure in 2021 as a full-time medic on the front lines in Vancouver
The last year of my career has presented a range of challenges: a global pandemic, an industry-wide staffing shortage, a heatwave, floods and, as the year closed out, the coldest weather on record. I knew it would be bad, but as each new tragedy emerged, the working conditions became worse and worse.
First came the scarcity mentality: “There won’t be enough hospital beds for COVID patients,” and “We won’t have enough masks for you to stay protected.” There was this constant fear in the background of what would or could happen. Next came the challenges of navigating all the personal protective equipment. Yelling through respirators, going home with bruises on your face and wearing plastic gowns in 40-degree heat were all daily challenges.
Then there were the COVID-positive patients. The ones with minimal symptoms or discomfort who, knowing they could infect others, still demanded transportation and treatment in the emergency room. The ones who refused vaccinations but demanded your services once infected. The ones who, before getting COVID, were healthy and living a good standard of life. Seeing those ones, unable to breathe, in their living rooms, with the worried looks of their loved ones nearby, and having them dead by the end of the shift, hit hardest.
Then repeat these situations eight to 10 times throughout a 12-hour shift (which is never actually 12 hours, as the overtime is endless). Add in commuting throughout the third largest city in the country, not knowing who your partner is going to be for the shift and not getting a break, such that lunch is eaten on your lap in the ambulance, and you’ve set the stage for some challenging times. I can certainly say that telling eight families in a period of a few days that their loved one has died was a lot to endure. I personally know more colleagues than not have been off on a mental health–related leave in the past year due to new workplace stressors.
These workplace challenges weren’t without physical coping mechanisms. Some emergency medical service (EMS) staff turned to alcohol, some to recreational drugs, some the outdoors. Many were chronically sleep deprived and unable to cope without prescription medications or sedatives in between shifts. I fall into that category.
I can remember, multiple mornings, lying in bed at 8 a.m. after a night shift, my body and mind finally getting time to process the previous shift, replaying every interaction, treatment plan and medication given, asking myself if I’d made the right decision. Had we been there sooner, would the outcome have changed? No wonder COVID has shattered our mental health. Isolation, loss of community and fearfulness have run as rapidly as the disease itself. But before you know it, it’s time to get back up and ready for the next night shift. Sleep becomes a mirage, this thing you chase but rarely obtain enough of.
How did I cope? I chose to ride my bike. And ski. These may sound like healthy coping strategies, but needing an increased adrenalin surge by riding trails faster, launching off from higher drops and rolling down 100-meter rock slabs in the rain is far from healthy. You begin to chase the high. It’s an addiction.
We become drawn to the idea of presence and being present. Sometimes my work feels like a moving meditation. The stakes are so high there is nothing else taking your attention away from that moment. And, as we know, presence is peace. So in a strange, roundabout way, I feel just as present and connected on certain trauma scenes as I do lying motionless on my yoga mat. One breath at a time, one motion, one word.
When you get some time off and actually sleep consistently for a few nights, waking up and enjoying coffee at home, though, you ponder: what could life be like? A routine nine-to-five job. Sleeping in your own bed every night. How nice that might be. You stabilize. You think back. Work may not be that bad. You get your uniform ready for the next shift.
Because of my job, the real world, to me, is very real. I love that I get to walk into a room and immediately be met with true feelings, emotions and situations. I suck at small talk. I want to hear about the rawness of life. From my experiences as a paramedic I can draw a few conclusions: we all want love and to be seen, heard and valued. We are all fearful of illness and loss. And we strive for connection and community. I try to evoke these concepts in my practice, as best I can.
I do it by taking care of myself first—a lesson I am only starting to learn. To say no to the overtime shift, sleep in with my pup, drink coffee slowly while reading or make a nice breakfast before a bike ride or ski—that’s how I do it.
How did we, as a whole, cope? In unity. As much as these stressors acted as roadblocks, they also made us closer as a family. EMS has always been that way—a family. We all showed up in 2021 fighting for the same cause and looking out for each other as best we could. And we had to, because if you weren’t showing up for yourself or your co-workers, you can bet no one else was.
About the author
Heather is an avid mountain biker, skier and yogi. She is also a youth mountain bike coach and a volunteer on a critical incident stress team that offers peer-to-peer support for emergency services personnel. For the last six years she has worked with BC Emergency Health Services, currently as a full-time advanced care paramedic in Vancouver
This article was originally published in Visions Journal