Talking Green

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There’s a secret behind this job.

You go to work. You run the calls: the boring, the exciting, the obnoxious, the weird. Occasionally, the terrible. You see, you do, you move on. Like everything else, it runs off our backs. Like rain off a tin roof.

At least, that’s what we tell ourselves. But there’s a secret.

The secret is that hidden beneath the uniformed cowboy swagger of no-problem, we-got-this, no-big-deal, a thick vein of psychological stress is flowing. You don’t see it in your coworkers, because they hide it away. When it reaches you, you do the same, because it’s not okay to show it. Our professional image is unflappability, and you can’t be unflappable if you let things get to you. So we push it under the rug.

Until one of us takes their own life.

PTSD, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and yes, suicide, are a fact of life in EMS. But we never talked about it. At least, not until a few of our colleagues were brave enough to start shining light upon the problem, in an effort called the Code Green Campaign.

Code Green collects anonymous confessions from our brothers and sisters who can’t speak them out loud, reports the (all too frequent) suicides, collates the research exploring first responder mental health, and performs outreach to build awareness.

Explore their website for more information about their basic mission. After that, come back, because I asked them to unpack a few of the subtleties behind this problem and how they’re trying to solve it.

Question: While most first responders agree with the need for the Code Green Campaign, most of us haven’t actually done anything about it. You did. How and why did it first come about? What was the impetus and how did the early days take shape?

Answer: In March of 2014 one of my co-workers died of suicide. After his death I was talking about it with a group of friends, and we realized that even though we worked for different agencies in different states, we all knew someone that had died of suicide or had a serious attempt. We knew that this couldn’t be a coincidence, so I started looking into it further. I couldn’t find a lot of data, but what I did find told me that this was a much bigger problem than anyone realized.

Once we established that there was, in fact, a mental health problem, as well as a stigma problem, we started discussing what could be done — particularly about the stigma. It occurred to us that if there was one thing first responders like doing, it is sitting around telling stories. We thought that if we could come up with a way for first responders to share the stories of their own mental health problems, other people could read them and realize they weren’t the only ones struggling. We started collecting the stories and posting them on social media every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Things blew up from there.

In the early days things moved fast. My co-worker died on March 12th, and on March 16th we came up with the story sharing idea. We came up with our name a couple days later, and I think it was by March 23rd that we had our Facebook page up and running and stories being shared.

Q: Let’s get down to the elephant in the room. Why is this a problem for us? Why do EMS providers seem to be at higher risk for mental health issues in general, and for suicide in particular, compared to bakers, librarians, and schoolteachers?

A: I’m going to preface this answer with the warning that this is a lot of supposition, extrapolation, and educated guesswork. PTSD has most extensively been studied in the military population, so that is the best info we have. This is also a simplified answer, since the long answer would probably beat a doctoral dissertation in length.

  1. We are frequently exposed to known risk factors for PTSD, such as seeing people hurt or dead, feeling helplessness or fear, having poor social support after a traumatic event, and having extra stress outside of work (marital, financial, etc).
  2. We are poorly prepared for the realities of the job. Yes, we’re warned that we’ll see blood and guts and gore, but we’re not told that we are going to feel helpless on a regular basis, or that we’ll be scared we hurt a patient or made them worse. We’re not taught about how different this job can be from normal jobs, and how hard it can be for spouses and other family members to understand what we go through.
  3. Aside from stressful calls, we’re exposed to higher rates of assault, vehicle crashes, and workplace injuries than many fields, which can add to the trauma.
  4. We seem to have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, although it is unclear why.
  5. We work in a very macho field and we’re supposed to be the helpers, not the ones that need help. There have also been reports of people being suspended or fired after admitting they have a problem. That combination helps create a huge stigma against admitting any sort psychological problem and asking for help.
  6. We have more knowledge about lethal means of suicide.

Q: Okay, so let’s contrast EMS against some similar fields. Other first responders like fire and police, or medical personnel like doctors and nurses, all seem share most of the qualities you listed. Are they in the same boat? Or is there anything that puts us at greater risk compared to them?

A: Other first responders like fire and police are in the same boat. In fact, we don’t separate EMS numbers from fire service numbers because the employee base is so entwined.  There are almost no fire departments out there who don’t do any EMS at all, so it is tough for us to draw a line as to who counts as EMS and who doesn’t. Just because an agency doesn’t transport doesn’t mean their employees/volunteers aren’t exposed to the same trauma. If you can’t draw the line at transport versus non-transport, where do you draw it? In the long run, it becomes almost impossible to separate people out. With police officers it is easier, but their suicide rate is on par with Fire/EMS. I believe that in 2014 there were over 140 reported police suicides.

As far as other medical professionals go, we do know that doctors do have a high rate of suicide, to the tune of 46 per every 100,000 (for first responders we’re looking at about 30 per 100,000). We don’t know what the suicide rate is for nurses, PAs, or NPs, but we wouldn’t be surprised to learn it is also high.

This is purely supposition on my part, but I do think we are particularly susceptible, because EMS is less developed than other medical fields. Nurses and doctors have well-established professional organizations representing them at the state and national levels. EMS is much more fragmented. The one big difference we’ve especially noticed with nurses and doctors compared to EMS is that many states have license preservation programs in place for RNs and physicians, but not for first responders. That is, if they have a mental health or addiction issue, their state may have an official program in place to help them keep their license while getting help. Few (if any) states have a similar program for first responders. EMS doesn’t have that kind of well-organized advocacy yet.

Q: I expect many of our readers aren’t familiar with license preservation programs. What are they and what are the possible ramifications when we lack one?

A: My answer is based on the states I’ve lived in. From what I understand, most states have such a program set up for either doctors and/or nurses. Basically, the state has recognized that nurses and doctors spend considerable time and money to obtain their licenses, and that it is in everyone’s best interest to keep them on the job, rather than automatically revoking their license. Here is an example of how it would work: say a nurse starts diverting narcotics. She self-reports her behavior to her employer and to her state licensing agency. She will likely be suspended or fired from work, but if the state has a license preservation program her license will only be suspended. The licensing board will then review the case and outline what the nurse has to do to get her license reinstated. They may require her to complete a treatment program, attend weekly counseling sessions, and submit to monthly drug tests. As long as she meets those requirements, she can keep her license.

The issue with lacking a license preservation program is that it creates an atmosphere of fear. People will avoid seeking help for anything they think could possibly cause their license to be suspended, since they have no way of knowing the outcome of that. No license means no job, and unless you want to move to another state, you’d have to come up with a new career fast.

Q: In the absence of such programs, is there a real possibility that EMS providers can lose their jobs or even their certifications merely for reporting mental health issues? In other words, no diversion or actual violations, just the typical paramedic suffering from depression, anxiety, or PTSD?

A: This question is difficult to answer because it is based on the idea that people are routinely reporting their mental health issues to the employer or the state. Unless someone is seeking to use Worker’s Comp or other employment benefits for a mental health issue, there is no reason to be reporting routine treatment to anyone (unless it is required, like with some communicable diseases). Someone wouldn’t report that they’re being treated for asthma or hypertension to their employer or state licensing board, so why would they report depression or PTSD? Employment benefit issues aside, in absence of diversion or actual violation it really doesn’t make sense for anyone but the person and their treatment team to know anything. 

Such programs are generally more reactive than proactive, although in the ones I’ve looked at it is strongly encouraged to self-report issues/violations before they are caught by an employer. In fact, at my employer you’re much more protected if you self-report to the EAP than you are if you get caught.

I think that no matter what the reality is, having programs like these make it so that people don’t feel like they are backed into a corner once they develop an issue. We don’t want people feeling like a situation is hopeless, we want them to be able to see there are options.

Q: I imagine that in most cases, “reporting” occurs in the circumstances of a worker’s compensation claim (i.e. asking the employer to pay for mental health services), or perhaps when an employee needs to take time off work.

In the real world, I expect some employers are inclined to be less than supportive about these types of requests. Are they sometimes refused? Are employees sometimes asked to “prove” that their condition is work-related? Is there a legal framework mandating employers to provide these services and accommodations?

A: We answered earlier that Worker’s Comp claims or using other employment benefits are the instances an employer is most likely to learn that someone is having issues.  It is difficult to answer a straight “yes” or “no” to any part of this question. No one has sat down and studied how often requests like the above are made, how often they are granted, how often they are refused, and if the response to such a request is affected by the type of employer or the state the employee is located in. We don’t know how often time off requests for mental health conditions are granted or refused, or how often they are granted or refused compared to other time off requests at that same employer. We could come up with anecdotes of both positive and negative outcomes, but there is no data.

What is and what isn’t covered by Worker’s Comp will vary from state to state and employer to employer. We do know that there are states where psychological conditions are not covered for anyone, or are only covered for certain jobs, and the employer has no control over that. It’s not uncommon for Worker’s Comp claims to be investigated no matter what kind of claim it is, so we would not be surprised if people filing a claim related to a psychological issue would be subjected to some questioning. Just ask anyone who has filed Worker’s Comp for a back injury or knee injury. Worker’s Comp tends to be difficult no matter what. 

Furthermore, people who have had to take time off for physical injuries will tell you that on top of their injury being investigated and questioned, they likely also had to jump through hoops in order to return to work. Fitness for duty evaluations, physical agility tests, etc. Because of the differences between state laws and agency policies it is very difficult to know if mental health conditions are being treated differently at a significant rate.

As for accommodations, that is even more complicated. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) employers are mandated to provide reasonable accommodations for employees that have disabilities. Now, how many first responders do you know that are willing go through that process, and then admit to their employer that they have a disability that needs to be accommodated? Additionally, first responder agencies are in a tough spot when it comes to accommodations because this field is so unpredictable. Agencies can’t ensure that you’ll never run another pediatric cardiac arrest, or never have to respond to a certain address again. If someone has an anxiety attack while responding to a call, or on scene of a call, is taking them out of service going to be considered reasonable? Probably not. Accommodations get very complicated very quickly.

Q: Interesting. So despite these challenges, the problem is clearly an urgent one. What steps can field staff take to prevent and manage mental health issues, whether for themselves or for their colleagues?

A: Resiliency, and building resiliency factors, seems to be a key to helping prevent mental health issues from arising, so everyone should review what resiliency factors they have and work on building upon them. People also need to be able to recognize signs of decline in themselves, such as worsening sleep, increased drinking, and anger issues. For co-workers, the biggest thing is not to be afraid to say something to someone if you think there is a problem. Asking someone, “Are you thinking of suicide?” is not going to put the idea into their head — so if you’re concerned, ask.

Something else that is important is reducing the stigma around mental health in general. Don’t make jokes about “BS psych patients” or complain that psych calls are a waste of time. This contributes to the stigma and makes it harder for people to admit they have their own problem.

Q: What other points do you want do make on this important topic?

A: We need to keep talking about this and keep the conversation going. Changing how mental health is addressed is going to involve changing the culture, which is going to take time and effort.

For people who want to get involved there are several things you can do. Speak up if you hear someone speaking negatively about mental health, whether in the context of our peers or our patients. If you hear about a suicide, please report it to either Code Green or to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance. All reports are confidential and we do not disclose information without permission.

If you know of a first responder–friendly mental health professional in your area, let us know so we can add them to our resource database. It may not seem like much, but this kind of stuff is incredibly helpful to us and to the cause.

Visit the website of the Code Green Campaign to learn more, read personal accounts, and see else what you can do to help.

The Long-term Care Ombudsman: Advocates on Call

Although we like to talk around here about exciting topics like shock and airway management, the reality is that for many EMS providers — particularly at the BLS level — a large part of this job isn’t stabilizing emergencies. It’s routine work like dialysis trips and stable transfers from nursing facilities. Some folks find this stuff dull, and it can be dull, but the best way to make it interesting is to approach it just like the exciting stuff and try to be excellent at both aspects of the job.

How can you excel at bringing Mr. Smith to his third doctor’s appointment this week? You can learn to be a really good patient advocate on his behalf, something that almost all residents of long-term care facilities need. We’re well-positioned to fill this role because we have a one-on-one relationship with our patients. Unfortunately, we often lack the know-how and leverage to resolve most of their problems.

Our feature in the August 2014 issue of EMS World talks about how to use the ubiquitous Long-Term Care Ombudsman program to help. It’s easy, it works, and even if you didn’t know about it, there’s one available in your area. Give it a read and think about bringing it to bear the next time the guy on your stretcher has something to say!

Missing your Manners


“Hi, my name is Brandon. I’m an EMT with Save-a-life Ambulance. Can I help you?”

Anybody remember that? I think it was on page 6 of the EMT textbook.

I suppose it’s about communicating your name, which is nice. And it’s about obtaining consent, which is important, although in reality, consent in EMS is usually handled the same way as consent in sexual activity — you just go until someone says stop.

But mainly it’s about courtesy and professionalism. It’s gauche to swoop into a room and just start playing with somebody’s lesions without so much as a how-do-you-do.

The trouble is that the formal intro is so hokey nobody actually uses it. Or uses anything remotely similar. And I think that’s a shame, because although it’s silly, it’s getting at something important.

We understand that people call us mainly to bring some order to their crisis. Obviously, that involves Doing Medicine. But the medicine is just a means to an end.

Why do we call plumbers? When your sink starts flooding water into the kitchen, you don’t know what to do. This situation is alien; it’s outside of your expertise. You may be very good at many things in life, such as fueling your car, tying your shoes, and making cherries jubilee, but you don’t know what to do about this.

You know that there are people who have the answers, though; they’re called plumbers. So you call a plumber, and say, make it right.

We’re the same way. People don’t know what to do when they get chest pain or crash their car. But they know that if they call 911, professionals will come who know what to do. So they call us. That’s why people sometimes ask 911 to fetch cats out of trees or ask when the circus is coming to town. It’s why the first reaction of so many motorists after a crash is to call their spouse or their dad.

The thing is, when we walk in and our first reaction is to Do Medicine, it’s not helping the problem. All that medicine is just more strangeness, unless your patient is a fellow clinician. So now their distress is going to continue until you can finally tell them what’s wrong. Except you won’t, because you don’t think you’re qualified for that. So now they’ll stay confused and scared until they get to the hospital. And on and on.

Throw them a rope!

The fastest way to restore normality to a situation is to reintroduce a familiar activity. And social courtesies are very familiar to everyone.

When you introduce yourself and shake someone’s hand, they’re transported from the confusing world of a medical crisis to something much more comfortable. They know how to do this. Smile, shake, say your name. It’s easy. They’re good at it.

Sometimes patients are visibly shocked when you do this, and seem to reset; you can literally watch them change channels. Now they’re a little calmer, a little happier, and you can work with that. With enough balls, you can pull this off in the most outrageous circumstances. Sing praise for the EMT who can walk in on the triple traumatic amputation and say “Hi! I’m Jim. What’s going on?”

Now, of course, you don’t want to minimize the patient’s distress. In an emergent situation, it can be galling and obnoxious for their freak-out to be met by your apparent apathy or boredom. That’s why you have to find a middle ground between projecting calm confidence and acknowledging the seriousness (perceived or real) of the patient’s situation. Don’t let them drag you along into panic, but don’t try to abruptly pull them to a halt either; strike a balance, pace them, and then gradually slow them back down. The point is that introducing yourself like a regular person is a powerful tool for restoring normality to a crazy situation: use that tool liberally, but intelligently.

I’ve had patients tell me I was the only Medical Person they could remember introducing themselves. That’s a damned shame. People greet each other and make a introduction when they meet. And aren’t patients people?

Clinical Judgment: How to Do Less


It was around 11:00 AM when we were called to a local skilled nursing facility for a hip fracture. The patient was a 61-year-old male with mild mental retardation and several other issues, who’d fallen last night while walking to the bathroom. He was helped back to bed with moderate hip pain, and the staff physician stopped by to check him out. A portable X-ray was performed, which the physician interpreted as showing a proximal femur fracture as well as an associated pelvic fracture. This was communicated to us via a scrawled note and a cursory report.

The patient was found resting comfortably in bed, semi-Fowler’s and alert. He had no complaints at rest, although his pelvis and left femoral region were mildly tender and quite painful upon movement. No deformity was notable and there was no obvious instability. His vitals were stable and he was generally well-appearing, in no apparent distress. He denied bumping his head and had no pain or tenderness in the head or neck.

We gently insinuated a scoop stretcher underneath him, filled the nearby voids with towels and other linen, and bundled him into a snug, easily-movable package. Then we gave him the slow ride to his requested emergency department, a teaching hospital in town just a few minutes away.

We rolled into the ED and were lifting him into bed on the scoop when a young man entered the room, bescrubbed and serious-looking. I gave a brief report. As the words “pelvic fracture” left my lips, his mental alarms started visibly beeping and flashing, and he hurriedly asked, “What kind of pelvic fracture?”

“We don’t know. All we’ve got is the radiology note, which doesn’t say much.”

“Okay, but pelvic fractures can be a big deal. It could be … ” he sucked in air, “… open-book. There could be a lot of bleeding.”

I stared at him. “Well, sure. But he’s been stable since last night, and has a basically normal physical with no complaints at rest. He’s not exactly circling the drain.”

He didn’t seem to hear me as he briskly approached the patient and began poking him and asking questions. While we pulled our stretcher out of the room, he asked, “Does your neck hurt at all?”

Now that the patient had been stuck on a scoop stretcher for over twenty minutes, he thought for a moment and then shrugged. “Sure.” The doctor immediately ordered the placement of a cervical collar.

As we escaped, he was on the phone to the SNF, and the last thing I heard was him berating them with his urgent need to know exactly what type of pelvic calamity the patient had suffered.


What was the failure here? It was a failure of clinical judgment.

Clinical judgment is a phrase which means different things to different people, and often its meaning is so nebulous (much like “patient advocacy“) that it sounds good while saying nothing. But most would agree that it means something like this: the ability to combine textbook knowledge and personal experience, applying them intelligently to the current patient’s situation to yield an accurate sense of the possible diagnoses and the costs vs. benefits of possible treatments. In other words, it means knowing what the patient’s probably got and what to do about it, which is the heart of medicine anyway. So what’s all the fuss about?

In reality, when clinical judgment is mentioned, what’s often meant is something specific: the wisdom to know when something’s not wrong. Much of medicine is about planning for the worst, ruling out the badness, and looking for the unlikely-but-possible occult killer that nobody wants to miss. As a result, we often act as if nearly everybody is seriously ill, even when they probably aren’t.

On a practical level, most complaints — from chest pain to the itchy toe — could conceivably represent a disaster. Anything’s possible. So if we want to truly adopt perfectly mindless caution, we should be intubating every patient and admitting them directly to the ICU so that we’re ready when their skin melts off and their eyes turn backwards.

But we can’t do that, and we shouldn’t. So how do we know when to do a little less? Clinical judgment.

Clinical judgment is the acumen to assess a patient and say, “I think we’re okay here. Let’s hold off on that.” It’s what you develop when you have both the knowledge and experience to understand that a person is low-risk, and that certain tests or treatments are more likely to harm than to hurt them. That doesn’t mean that nothing will be done, or that more definitive rule-out tests will not occur, but it means you’re not freaking out in the meanwhile. It’s a triage thing.

Put another way, imagine the patient who you’re placing in spinal immobilization, or providing with supplemental oxygen, or to whom you’re securing a splint. They ask, “Look, I don’t much like this; do I really need it?” Well, I don’t know, rockstar — does he? If you’re simply acting on algorithms, reflexively doing x because you found y, then you really don’t know. How important is that oxygen? To answer that, you’d need to truly understand the benefits versus the potential harms, which means having a strong grasp of the mechanism of action, familiarity with the relevant literature (including the pertinent odds ratios, NNT and so forth), prior experience with similar patients, et cetera… only with that kind of knowledge do you really understand what’s happening. In essence, the patient is asking for the informed element of informed consent, something he’s entitled to, and you can’t provide it if you don’t have it yourself.

But when you do develop that depth and breadth of knowledge, you gain a special ability. It’s the ability to do less. When you truly understand what you’re dealing with, and more importantly, what you’re not dealing with, you can titrate medicine to what’s actually needed and stop there. Along with the knowledge comes the confidence, because you don’t merely know, you know that you know; in other words, you don’t need to take precautionary steps merely because you’re worried there might be considerations you don’t understand.

When it comes to withholding anything, even the kitchen sink, you might ask, “isn’t there risk here?” And strictly speaking, there is risk. But you can set that bar wherever you want. The important thing to grasp is that “doing everything for everyone” is not the “safe” approach; overtriage and overtreatment are not benign. All those things you’re doing have a cost. They may cause real harm. Even at best, they cost time and money, and subject the patient to unnecessary discomfort and inconvenience. We’d like to minimize all that whenever possible.

So, we return to the gentleman with the pelvic fracture. Strictly speaking, fracture of the pelvis has the potential to be life-threatening; certain types of unstable fracture can cause massive bleeding, along with damage to nervous, urinary, and other structures. So a textbook response to “pelvic fracture?” might be to treat it as a high-risk trauma.

But a patient with an unstable, severely hemorrhaging open-book pelvic fracture probably wouldn’t look like that. It would be evident; it would cause a number of apparent effects, such as pain and distress, shock signs, altered vitals, deformity or palpable instability. Except in bizarre cases or in patients who are clinically difficult to evaluate, big problems create big changes. While it’s true that we don’t know exactly what the X-ray showed, so one could theoretically argue for any conceivable pathology, there’s no question that the patient appeared stable, had remained unchanged for many hours, and had apparently been judged low-acuity after evaluation and imaging by his own doctor. In other words, let’s take it easy.

The question of spinal immobilization is another example. Strictly speaking, could we rule out the possibility of a cervical spine fracture? Well, no. Not without CT and MRI and even then who knows. But the fall was many hours ago, the patient was freely mobile and turning his head throughout that period, had no peripheral neurological deficits, denied striking his head or loss of consciousness, and quite frankly, had no pain until he spent twenty minutes with his head against a metal board.

It’s not often that you find a doctor more concerned about C-spine than an EMT. How did it happen here?

Despite the fact that we delivered the patient to a major tertiary center, it was nevertheless a teaching hospital, and the new interns had just hit the wards. While this particular clinician was undoubtedly smart and well-educated, at this stage he had about two weeks of experience behind him, and that is not conducive to providing judicious (rather than applied-by-spatula) care. He had neither the experience to know when to take it easy, nor the confidence in that experience to stand by such a decision.

We don’t want to take this concept to its extreme, which would involve doing very little for most of our patients. In the end, this is still emergency medicine, and emergency care will always involve screening for the deadly needle in the benign haystack. There’s also danger in simply becoming lazy and burned-out, and using Procrustean application of cynical “street smarts” to justify never bothering with anything. The real goal is to do the right things for the right reasons, no more, no less. And to get to that point, you have to put in some time.

The Laws of EMS

One more post about glucometry is pending, but for now, something lighter.

Decades of medical interns have been raised on the Laws of the House of God. The House of God was a cynical and dark look into the world of modern medicine, and its “Laws” were about as uplifting as condensed soup, but they rang true enough that you’ll still hear them quoted in the halls of medicine today (including those of the real-life “House of God,” where I find myself more shifts than not).

In any case, laws come in handy. Although I’m a believer in the nuanced and detailed analysis, as I age and my neurons gradually turn to cotton candy, I increasingly see the value in basic rules of thumb to guide us through the tangled web of life, and especially of this job.

A good law is simple. It’s always true, or almost always, and the exceptions prove the rule. It’s not specific to a certain region or company, but is something you can keep under your hat and carry with you throughout your career. It’s clear and it say something fundamental about the kind of provider you want to be. But most of all, a good law is not just an empty platitude, but rather an actionable guide-post that can answer real questions in real situations. When times are hard or temptations loom, it’ll tell you what to do.

With no further ado, then, here are mine. I believe in them, I follow them, and like good unguent, I wholeheartedly prescribe them for universal application. I am not wise, but whenever I do a good job of faking it, it’s by following these principles.



  1. Help your patient in any way you can.
  2. Be nice to everybody. It’s your job.
  3. If you can’t save their life, make their day a little better.
  4. Protect your partner.
  5. Have a reason for everything you do.
  6. Leave the patient better off than when they met you.
  7. It should get calmer when you show up.
  8. Good habits make doing the right thing easy.
  9. Tomorrow, nothing will remain but your documentation.
  10. Everything’s a bigger deal to the person on the stretcher.


But that’s just me. What laws do you believe in?

Editor’s note: this post was expanded into a feature piece for EMS World Magazine in the March 2014 issue.