I have been working as a paramedic in British Columbia for five years now.
I have officially lost count of how many lives I've saved, but my estimation is around 40 or 50 people. I like the idea someone is still around because of what I did for my job; I guess I got into paramedicine because I wanted to change people's lives in an important and impactful way.
But when I tell people I'm a paramedic, often their immediate reaction is, "That's crazy! What’s the craziest thing you've ever seen? No, wait—how many dead people have you seen?"
It's frustrating because questions like that make traumatic images flash through my mind. Not things I need to forget necessarily, but not things I want brought up in a conversation with a person I am meeting for the first time.
I'm also a student at Simon Fraser University and just last week a classmate asked what kind of dead bodies I have seen. What a weird question to ask someone you've just met.
I can't speak for firefighters or police officers but I know a lot of paramedics get asked this all the time.
My guess is people ask these questions because they think first responders have a certain mindset and somehow we are OK with violence, blood, and dead bodies. But I don't think that's true. A lot of paramedics go into paramedicine because they want to be able to fix an injured person, fix a problem. I have heard a lot of stories where significant life events, like a family member passing away or a friend getting hit and killed by a car, pushed people towards wanting to learn how to fix people. So I would argue we work as paramedics because we are uncomfortable with bodies, with blood and violence. We need to fix these things.
When people ask us about the horrible things we've seen they want a funny anecdote, like a dead clown in a Monkey Tree or something. They want stories that are different from what you actually find in real life. Because most of the bodies we see are not fun or pretty—mostly they're just kinda sad.
Usually I give people vague generic answers and try to move away from the conversation. I don't want to talk about it, and people who ask don't actually want to hear about the things I have seen.
I have seen people stabbed to death. I have seen people killed in car accidents. I have tended to pedestrians hit by cars, and I don't know if they lived or died in the hospital. I have seen domestic abuse. I have seen people kill themselves. I have seen the insides of morgues around the city. I have responded to high-profile calls I later saw in the news. If you want me to guess I have seen more than 100 dead people in the five years I've been working as a paramedic.
Working in the middle of the opioid crisis means I see a lot of overdose calls, maybe 75 so far. Everyone has naloxone these days and sometimes that means when we get to the patient someone already gave them Narcan and they’re up and walking away. Other times it means we respond to calls when someone has been dead in their home for three days because they were using alone and overdosed.
Even with all of that I am lucky, I'm on the lighter end of the spectrum of shit to see out there. When calls are flagged as particularly bad higher-ups can call you in for a debriefing to check on your mental health. I've yet to be called in like that, though I know a lot of coworkers who have.
I have not yet seen someone shot or strangled. I say "not yet" because paramedicine is a statistics game. Working full-time in the city means you go to thousands of calls per year. People in the industry for 25 years have seen it all. Nothing surprises them anymore.
I don't like talking about the worst thing I have ever seen. It was bloody, violent, inhumane. I have never seen someone treated so poorly before. It is one thing to be killed, it is another to be so brutally murdered.
I think post-traumatic stress disorder is kind of something you accept you will have when you're a paramedic. Similar to when your parents told you not to slouch as a kid or you'll end up with back problems. You know it could be true, but you don't want to accept it. You assume you are stronger, you will be the one person to work for 20 years at the top of your game and never get rattled. But everyone will find something, at some time, will shake them.
Not all calls that stick with us are from patients dying. Sometimes it's an ankle broken in such a way that it makes you feel sick and it sticks with you for years to come.
I remember when I was thinking about training to be a paramedic and I sat down with a guy who had been in the industry for years. I never asked him directly about the things he'd seen but he still opened up about his PTSD—which I had never realized he suffered from before—and how it affected him. He described a very gruesome and traumatic experience I couldn't even believe was possible—and he'd gone through that, and lived with that.
I don't think people who ask first responders these questions understand they're likely talking to someone who, at some point, has suffered from PTSD. They think we're in this job because we're emotionally invincible, but we're not.
Four out of the five people who learn I'm a paramedic will ask about the worst things I've ever seen. It's the fifth person who doesn't ask that I'll be friends with. Not to say they won't eventually ask, but it will be years into knowing me. They will start a conversation like, "could I ask you something really personal about your job? You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."
It is nice when people think it through. Take a moment to step into my shoes and remember a first responder's worst day at work is likely bloody, gory and traumatizing.
If I am going to talk about the shit I've seen it needs to be on my terms. It should never be a spontaneous question.
Ask me how many lives I have saved, because then I am thinking about something positive, about a positive impact I've had on someone's life. If you ask about the number of bodies I've seen, then I reflect on how I wasn't able to save someone. It's a personal failure. Even if I wasn't there in time, it hurts, I wasn't able to help. Or my helping wasn't enough.
Think about that the next time you meet a first responder.
Michelle Gamage is a reporter who lives with Alex Miniato in Vancouver. Follow her on Twitter.