Talking Green

Code Green Campaign logo

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.

Glass Houses: Suicide in Both Seats



Of all the skills we’re called upon to wield without adequate training, care for psychiatric complaints tops the list. In particular, it’s a rare shift when you don’t handle a person — whether on the initial emergency response or a subsequent interfacility transfer — who has thought about, or even attempted to commit suicide.

Probably because these patients aren’t very medically exciting and can be challenging to deal with (due to varying degrees of cooperativeness), many of us aren’t big fans. We also tend to have a cynically individualistic sort of streak, which says that deep down, patients are responsible for themselves. If someone wants to be healthy and they get unlucky, we’ll help out. But if they can’t be bothered to try, we can’t be bothered either, and if they’re actively trying to hurt themselves, surely we have better things to do than interfere with natural selection.

But before we throw stones, we should probably understand the disease we’re discussing. Just like you can’t treat CHF without grasping its pathophysiology, properly treating the suicidal patient — or even deciding not to care — demands knowledge before judgment.

Depression itself is hard to grasp from the outside. This easy walkthrough may shed some light, but if you haven’t been there, you probably shouldn’t pretend you understand it. Nevertheless, it’s one of those conditions that invites amateur opinions, because it seems like the sort of thing we all know something about.

Maybe depression is too loosey-goosey; maybe it’s better if we stick to concrete facts, yeah? And there’s nothing more concrete than suicide. Let’s talk about suicide.

Start by reading through this article at the Daily Beast. It’s long, but it’s real good, and you may start to change your mind about a few things by the end.

For instance, in 2010, in the developed world where we have good statistics, suicide killed more people in the prime of their life (ages 15–49) than anything else. Read that again. Of all the terrible insults we study and treat, from gunshots to heart attacks, car crashes to cancer, suicide was more deadly than every single one. Over a hundred thousand suicide deaths that year. Almost a million across all age ranges. Every murder, every war, every natural disaster you read about in 2010 — throw them all together, and they still don’t equal the number of suicides. There were probably even more that weren’t reported, and even that’s just the successful suicides, of course; those that were attempted but didn’t quite succeed make up a much larger group, perhaps twenty-five times larger. (Yes, 25 times.) And there are more and more every year.

When we talk about CPR, we often talk about quality of life. When a 98-year-old bed-bound dementia patient dies, we might ask whether we should jump through hoops to save them; even in the best possible case, they’re not going to return to a very long or very fruitful existence. But when the 20-year-old college student drops dead on the lacrosse court, we want very badly to bring him back, because if we can he might live another 70 wonderful years.

Well, the people committing suicide are the second kind. They’re often middle-aged, middle-class folks who could be happy and live long — if they can get past their illness. But dead people won’t get past anything.

Of course, we see a lot of depressed people, and most of them won’t kill themselves even if they’ve thought about it. Figuring out who’s most at risk of taking that step is a worthwhile goal, and the Daily Beast article describes three risk categories that you may find useful:

  1. Those who feel alone, that they don’t belong anywhere
  2. Those who feel like a burden to others
  3. Those who have the willingness and capacity to go through with self-annihilation

Who feels alone? Everybody, at times. We need connection. Married people kill themselves less often than the unmarried, twins less often than only children, mothers raising small children almost never. Sometimes those who seem to have everything in life may have the weakest connections, which is why they say that money doesn’t equal happiness.

The life-saving power of belonging may help explain why, in America, blacks and Hispanics have long had much lower suicide rates than white people. They are more likely to be lashed together by poverty, and more enduringly tied by the bonds of faith and family. In the last decade, as suicide rates have surged among middle-aged whites, the risk for blacks and Hispanics of the same age has increased less than a point — although they suffer worse health by almost every other measure. There’s an old joke in the black community, a nod to the curious powers of poverty and oppression to keep suicide rates low. It’s simple, really: you can’t die by jumping from a basement window.

When nothing ties you down, when nobody cares what happens to you, what’s stopping you from shuffling off into the abyss? “I’m walking to the bridge,” one note said. “If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.” Did you smile at your last psych patient?

Who’s a burden? Anyone who’s not achieving, contributing, responsible for something or someone. The unemployed, the chronically cared-for, those with debilitating diseases or intractable poverty. We do this job because we like taking care of people, but that means there’s always someone being taken care of, and nobody loves being on that side of the equation. Some people will go to their graves rather than add to the work or worry of those around them. A few will send themselves there.

Finally, who’s actually willing to end their own lives? It takes something special to close the deal, a particular resolve; no living creature’s natural instinct is to die. Even if you have the desire, it’s not easy to pull the trigger. It’s those with the gift or the learned ability to follow through with difficult deeds, the “athletes, doctors, prostitutes, and bulimics . . . All have a history of tamping down the instinct to scream.”

Think about those categories. None of those are particularly insane thoughts to have. All it takes is their juxtaposition, and suddenly, something unthinkable becomes a very real possibility. Honest. It happens hundreds of thousands of times every year.


Suicide in EMS

“Well, what the heck,” you’re thinking. “That’s nice, but I’m not going to fix them, so why do I care? I’ll bring ’em where they’re going and say good luck; God and the doctor can take care of the rest.”

Fair enough. But I have a homework assignment for you.

Find that guy at work. You know the one. His nickname is “Doc” or “Papa.” He’s been doing this for twenty-plus years, since the days when ambulances were dinosaur-drawn wooden wagons. Ask about the other old-timers, the endless sea of faces he’s worked with over the years.

He’ll have good stories. Tons of them. Partners and coworkers and crazy SOBs. Hijinks were had, shenanigans performed, laughs all around.

But then ask what happened to those guys.

Because a lot of the time, they’re not running around on the ambulance anymore. Ol’ Doc is the exception. They’re not semi-retired, spending their afternoons fly-fishing and golfing. They didn’t jump careers to become bankers or meteorologists.

They’re dead. Or maybe in jail. Or shot robbing a 7-11 for $13. Or they were committed to a psych hospital so many times nobody knows what happened to him. Maybe they overdosed. Living on the street. Living who knows where.

And yes, some of them committed suicide.

Seems a little rich to judge your psych patients when, the way the odds go, you’re probably going to be the next one.

I suppose you could argue that EMS was different back then. Russ Reina talks about the time when most “ambulance drivers” were people who couldn’t find a job anywhere else, drifters and ex-cons. Not like now. Now we’re all as well-adjusted as Mr. Rogers. Right?

Yeah, sure.

Let’s be real. A lot of the people doing this job can’t stay employed even in our own dysfunctional field, and would never stand a chance anywhere else. Drug abuse and PTSD are common. And our social support networks often don’t extend past a partner or two.

Do we belong anywhere? Maybe you do in the police or fire service. But those of us who enter private EMS usually don’t last long before being sucked into a loop of working more and more overtime until we no longer have hobbies, no longer spend time with friends, no longer travel or expand our horizons. If we have spouses, significant others, or family, we neglect them. If we don’t have those relationships, we sure as hell don’t develop them from the driver’s seat of an ambulance. The last step — which doesn’t take more than a few years — is when we start to view every one of our patients as a nuisance. Burnout takes away the last string tying us to other people; if patients aren’t worth helping, aren’t hardly people at all, then the circle of humans in our life may become no larger than our uniform belt.

Are we a burden? In many cases, that shoe drops when we find ourselves off the clock. If our life has become the ambulance, what happens when we lose the ambulance? Your company goes belly-up. We piss off the wrong boss and get tossed out on our ass. Or, inevitably, we get injured. Suddenly, the only reason to get out of bed in the morning is gone. Sounds nice at first, but you realize quickly that having nothing to do actually means you’ve got no reason to be alive.

And are we afraid of dying? Who could be less afraid? We spend every day minimizing death, trivializing the human condition, ingraining a culture that teaches we should be able to order nachos after bandaging a burn victim. We drive fast; we laugh at seatbelts. Sometimes we snort cocaine and have sex in ambulances. (No, not you. But you know who.) There’s nothing beyond the pale for an EMT. Including pulling the trigger.

So is suicide a big deal? Yes. Should we try to understand it? Yes. Does it matter for us? Yes.

But more importantly: do we get to judge it? Do we get to pretend we’re above it? Are the kind of people who attempt it so bizarrely pathological that we’re nothing like them?

You can decide. But you only get to say that if you’re willing to say you don’t care about a disease that kills more healthy patients than anything else. Willing to write off hundreds of thousands of people every year.

And willing to say you don’t care that your partner could be next. Or your boss. Or yourself.


Check out The Code Green Campaign for mental health support for EMS. — ed. 1/17/15

Further reading

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?

Psychological First Aid

Eventually, we all reach EMS satori — I’m referring, of course, to the realization that most of our job doesn’t involve saving lives, or performing any high-level, acute medical interventions. Once we understand this, the question becomes: what does our job consist of?

One good answer among many is the management of psychological rather than physical injury. Can we help the person, even when there’s little need to help the body? We sure can, and it seems like after all the hours we spent studying airway management, we should spend at least a little time developing this other skill. If we’re going to surrender our identity as ET tube samurai, we’d better become experts at dropping mental balms.

It may not be rocket science, but there is certainly a right and a wrong way to help. One good source of ideas for doing it the right way is called psychological first aid.

Psychological first aid, or PFA, is a system developed jointly by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network and the National Center for PTSD. It’s meant to be a psychological counterpart to medical first aid — not a replacement for long-term professional therapy, but merely a method for addressing the immediate, acute mental stress response following crisis. It’s largely aimed at post-disaster scenarios, such as the victims of hurricanes and mass casualty incidents, and it’s become the preferred methodology for American Red Cross personnel. However, it also has valuable concepts that we can use every day on the ambulance, to help us care for both patients and any of their family or friends who are struggling.

This sort of thing may come naturally to some people, but PFA rolls it together into a standalone curriculum that can be transmitted to any professional, particularly those of us who don’t specialize in mental health. It’s also evidence-based: there is research behind most of its interventions, and the science tells us that it generally works. (Contrast this to CISM, which many feel is baseless at best and counterproductive at worst.)

Classes are available; check with your local Red Cross for more information. But here are some of the concepts:


General ideas

  • Take your cues from the patient. If they want to talk, listen. If they don’t, don’t force them.
  • You’re here as support and to listen, not as Dear Abby; limit your input and resist the urge to offer advice. Be sparing with relating personal anecdotes or “war stories,” even if they seem germane; it’s the patient’s crisis, not yours.
  • Cater your approach to the patient’s age and culture. Children in particular will need a different style than adolescents and adults. When approaching children, make contact with parents first, and understand that both parties will probably need to be attended to.
  • Reassure them that their emotions and reactions, no matter what they may be, are understandable and acceptable, not pathological.
  • Use language that’s clear, simple, and personal, avoiding medical terminology or jargon.
  • Understand your own role and limitations, and be ready to bring in better-trained specialists.

Avoid these types of remarks:

  • I know how you feel.
  • It was probably for the best.
  • She is better off now.
  • It was his time to go.
  • Let’s talk about something else.
  • You should work towards getting over this.
  • You are strong enough to deal with this.
  • You should be glad she passed quickly.
  • That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
  • You’ll feel better soon.
  • You did everything you could.
  • You need to grieve.
  • You need to relax.
  • It’s good that you are alive.
  • It’s good that no one else died.


Major Goals


1. Contact and Engagement

As you go about the business of the call, make sure that you’re orienting yourself as somebody who’s willing and able to help. From the initial patient contact all the way until you shake hands and part ways, you should be presenting yourself as a compassionate professional; all it takes is one slip of the tongue or roll of the eyes to betray that you’d rather be back at quarters finishing your burrito.


2. Safety and Comfort

Obviously, you should ensure that you are both physically safe, and that immediate medical concerns are managed; this also includes the recognition of patients who could harm themselves or others (like you).

If you’re still at a scene or in the ED where upsetting things are happening (such as a resuscitation), try to move somewhere more quiet and controlled. Keep them physically comfortable, with blankets, a chair, food or water, etc. Remove them from anyone who is themselves panicked or emotionally distressed, but do help to put them in contact with social support, such as friends, family, or clergy.

Try to give people active, familiar things to do, rather than sitting there passively being overwhelmed. Anything, even minor tasks (“here, hold this”), that involve them with their own care or the care of their loved one is beneficial; perhaps they can make some phone calls or locate insurance information.

Share whatever information you have regarding what’s currently happening, including what’s happening to others affected, and what can be expected next (do use judgment on how much they want/need to hear at this stage, though). But don’t lie, guess, form unfounded predictions, or make promises beyond your control (“they’ll/you’ll be just fine”). Consider a broad interrogatory like “Is there anything else you’d like to know?”

Kids may appreciate something like a teddy bear, and you can use it as a proxy for their own care, for instance: “Remember that she needs to drink lots of water and eat three meals a day — and you can do that too.” Also, children especially are sensitive to alarming sights and sounds; try to shelter them from unnecessary stimuli.


3. Stabilization (if needed)

As we’ve talked about before, anyone experiencing an acute, uncontrolled emotional response needs to be stabilized and grounded before much else can be done. Be on the lookout for things like: glassy-eyed or vacant stares; aimless wandering or unresponsiveness; uncontrolled crying, hyperventilating, shaking, or rocking; or frantic, illogical, even potentially dangerous behavior such as perseverating on simple tasks (continuously searching for a pair of glasses) or walking thoughtlessly through traffic. Remember that reactions may ebb and flow in surges.

Rather than broad reassurances — “stay calm” — try to determine their specific concerns, even if not entirely rational, and help address them. If completely adrift, patients may be assisted in “grounding” by deep breathing and asking them to describe where they are or concrete aspects of their surroundings (I see a table, I see a clipboard).

Consider both giving them some brief privacy (do tell them when you’ll be back), and remaining present and available yet non-intrusive, such as sitting nearby while you finish paperwork.


4. Information Gathering: Current Needs and Concerns

Determine the specific problems and needs of the patient. Individual responses may be flavored by their own psychological backdrop (such as depression or anxiety), history of similar incidents (a prior MVA or death in the family), or other unpredictable elements (they can’t stand the waiting room music). In some cases, the need for referral to a specialist may become obvious here, such as uncontrolled schizophrenia or major stressors in the setting of known PTSD and a history of self-harm; don’t try to “wing it” in complex psychiatric cases.

Follow their lead, and don’t press for details — a CISD-type debriefing can come later, if appropriate. Listen actively and openly. Look for expressions of emotion in their remarks, then make clarifying comments such as: “It sounds like you’re being really hard on yourself about what happened” or “It seems like you feel that you could have done more.” No matter what, don’t judge.


5. Practical Assistance

Assist the patient with any practical issues, which may be dominating (or over-dominating) their attention. Offer to notify friends or family, arrange for needed support, or obtain information about their care. Larger needs (such as questions about the costs of treatment) may be beyond your immediate power to address, but you can often take the first step, such as notifying hospital staff of their concerns. At the very least, provide whatever information you can and discuss a plan for resolving the problem. Even small measures like a warm blanket can have both practical and psychological benefit.

Remember that, although you may not be the most knowledgable or appropriate resource for many concerns, as an EMS provider you may be the only person who has the time and ability to address them. If you don’t make that phone call or find them a glass of water, it may be a long time until anybody else does; and it may not seem like a priority to find someone to move their car, but imagine how much better they’ll feel after it gets ticketed and towed.


6. Connection with Social Supports

Make an effort to enlist the patient’s support structure. In some cases, the first step may be to actually ask some version of, “Do you have a support network?” Some patients, such as the elderly or homeless, may not, and may need to rely particularly on institutional support, such as social workers.

When multiple individuals are in a group, such as family members at a scene or in the waiting room, ask if they have any questions or requests; this can provide a jumping-off point for further communication.

Make particular effort to bring children together with their parents or caregivers, and try not to separate them unnecessarily. Consider engaging children with simple activities, such as tic-tac-toe, “air hockey” (wad up paper and try to blow it across a table into the opposing person’s “goal”; this also promotes deep breathing), or the scribble game (one person scribbles on a paper, and the other tries to make it into something coherent).


7. Information on Coping

This step focuses on describing common stress reactions so that individuals will be more equipped to manage them. It is probably best left to more specialized professionals, since our own training is usually limited here.


8. Linkage with Collaborative Services

Help pass the patient along to existing resources, either by providing contact information or through direct referral. Most hospitals will have phone numbers or extensions for mental health, social work, counseling, and other services, and there are hotlines available for individuals not in care at a facility. (It’s worth having this sort of thing in your phone or on a cheat sheet, so that it’s available when you need it.)

When bringing in other aid, and even when making routine hand-offs to ED staff and the like, try to smooth the transition of care. Patients often feel as if they are passing through the hands of an endless series of personnel, with each one demanding to hear their story (and probably take their vital signs). Make an effort to give full, complete reports, and to establish your credibility through word and deed so that receiving staff feel less of a need to do it all over again; in particular, try to communicate whatever concerns or emotional state the patient is currently experiencing, so that the job of managing it can be seamlessly turned over. Introduce the new “helper” (for instance, the RN) directly to the patient, and let them know that they’ll be taking care of them; don’t just disappear, or they may feel abandoned.


Further information can be downloaded here from the National Center for PTSD.

Dialing it Down a Notch

Bringing order to chaos. It’s hard to suggest a more important skill for an EMT.

Emergencies are chaotic. Heck, even non-emergent “emergencies” are chaotic. The nature of working in the field is that most situations are uncontrolled. Part of our job is to bring some order to it all, sort the raw junk into categories, discard most of the detritus, and loosely mold the whole ball of wax into something the emergency department can recognize. Call us chaos translators. This is important stuff; it’s why the House of God declared, “At a cardiac arrest, the first procedure is to take your own pulse”; and it’s why we walk rather than run, and talk rather than shout.

The thing is, it’s not just those of us on the provider side that need this. Oftentimes patients need it too. Imagine: every other day of your life, you’re walking around without acute distress, in control of your situation and knowing what to expect. Today, something you didn’t anticipate and can’t understand has ambushed you — a broken leg, a stabbing chest pain — and you don’t know how to handle that. So you called 911 to make some sense of it all.

Most ailments are side effects of other problems: the fear of going mad, the anxiety of being so alone among so many, the shortness of breath that always occurs after glimpsing your own death. Calling 911 is a fast and free way to be shown an order in the world much stronger than your own disorder. Within minutes, someone will show up at your door and ask you if you need help, someone who has witnessed so many worse cases than your own and will gladly tell you this. When your angst pail is full, he’ll try and empty it. (Bringing Out the Dead)

With some patients, this is more true than with others. With some patients, there may be little to no underlying complaint; there is mainly just panic, a crashing wave of anxiety, a psychological anaphylactic reaction to a world that is suddenly too much for them. Particularly in those cases, but to a certain extent with everybody, bringing that patient to a place of calm may be exactly what they need. I have transported patients to the hospital who clearly and unequivocally were merely hoping to go somewhere that things made sense.

The burned-out medic likes to park himself behind the stretcher, zip his lip, and allow things to burn out on their own. This may sound merciless, but there is a certain wisdom to it.

We are very good in this business at escalating the level of alarm. Eight minutes after you hang up the phone, suddenly sirens are echoing down your street, heavy boots are echoing in your hall, and five burly men are crowding into your bathroom. We have wires, we have tubes, we have many, many questions. What a mess. So sometimes, once we’ve finished ratcheting everything up, it behooves us to pause, step back, and make a conscious effort to turn down the volume.

Take the stimuli of the environment, of the situation, and dial it way back. One of our best tools is to simply get the patient away from the scene — the heart of the chaos — and into the back of the ambulance, where we’re in control. It’s quiet, it’s comfortable, and there is less to look at. Move slowly, consider dimming the lights, and whenever possible avoid transporting with lights and sirens. Demonstrate calm, relaxed confidence, as if there’s truly nothing to be excited about. Some patients with drug reactions, or some developmental or psychological disorders (such as autism spectrum), may be absolutely unmanageable unless you can reduce their level of stimulation. Just put a proverbial pillow over their senses.

If you’re stuck on scene, try to filter out the environment a little. If bystanders or other responders (such as fire and police) are milling around, either clear out unnecessary personnel or at least ask them to leave the room for a bit. Make sure only one person is asking questions, and explain everything you do before you do it.

There’s a human connection here, and if you can master it, you can create an eye of calm even as sheet metal is being ripped apart around you. Look directly into your patient’s eyes, and speak to them calmly, quietly, and directly. Take their hand. Use their name, and make sure they know yours. Narrate what’s going on as it occurs, describe what they can expect next, and try to anticipate their emotional responses (surprise, fear, confusion). If they start to lose their anchor, bring them back; their world for now should consist only of themselves and you. To achieve this you need to be capable of creating a real connection; it is their focus on you that will help them to block out everything else. Done correctly, they may not want you to leave their side once you arrive at the hospital; you’re their lifeline, and it may feel like you’re abandoning them. Try to convince them that the worst is over, and they’ve arrived somewhere that’s safe, structured, and prepared to make things right. They’ve “made it.”

Applying these ideas isn’t always simple, and learning to recognize how much each patient needs the volume turned down requires experience. But just remember that no matter who they are, no matter what their complaint, most people didn’t call 911 because they wanted things more chaotic. Try to be a carrier of calm.