The untold story of emergency responder stress

The emotional toll suffered by people in medical professions is seldom told. Those out on the front lines and in the emergency room attempting to save family and friends are only human. TV shows like “House M.D.” and “Grey’s Anatomy” portray medically trained professionals as heroes who can bring back people from the dead and perform miraculous procedures any day. Yes, sometimes people are inexplicably saved, but realistically that is not always the case.

Because workers in medical fields can accumulate a great amount of stress after every single incident they respond to, UCC paramedic students are required to take at least one term of crisis intervention class. These classes are meant to prepare students for traumatic situations they might experience in the field. In these classes, students also learn how to cope with emotions post-scenario. This is the only amount of training students get in regards to the emotional stress that will occur after responding to an incident.

“My very first call as an actual working EMT was a code,” said UCC paramedic student Jordan Unicume. A “code” means that an EMT is attempting to resuscitate a patient whose heart is not pumping. “A code is a situation that does not typically end well for the patient. It is rare to see a patient who has suffered from cardiac arrest walk out of the hospital.” Unicume said. “I had gone through the crisis intervention class and was taught how to deal with my emotions from the traumatic experiences that the job would throw at me, yet I was unprepared,” Unicume continued. “I don’t believe all the training in the world could prepare us for what we face as first responders.”

When running a code, the first responder is expected to follow a timed algorithm that dictates when to perform CPR, when to pass certain medications, and when to defibrillate the heart. Unicume said that a code is something that is one of the easier things that a first responder is expected to know how to perform. “As an EMT, we are expected to be able to look at any medical or trauma situation and determine how to provide the best care,” Unicume explained, “all while selecting from a large variety of tools and medications in an environment that could be completely out of your control.” Unicume elaborated further by saying, “It’s unpredictable, and yet we need to know how to handle the scenario around us while also providing professional care to one or more patients in front of us.”

What first responders do on a regular basis takes a stressful and emotional toll. The statistics are jaw-dropping. In a study done by the Reviving Responders for Fitch & Associates’ Ambulance Service Manager Program, 37 percent of participants said they contemplated suicide, and 6.6 percent of participants attempted suicide compared to 0.5 percent of adults nationally. More than 80 percent of the participants admitted to experiencing “critical stress.” In the study, critical stress was defined as “the stress we undergo as a result of a single critical incident that had significant impact or accumulated stress over time.” More than 4,000 people participated in the study.

What’s more disheartening is that 40 percent of those who admitted to contemplating or attempting suicide had access to help but chose not to receive support because co-workers might look at them differently. Why is seeking help to handle emotions looked down upon?

“Everybody has a backpack, and in every incident that we respond to something winds up in your backpack,” UCC paramedic program advisor Roger Kennedy said. “If you don’t keep working to empty your backpack and lighten the load, at some point that backpack is going to be so full that you can no longer carry it, and it’s going to pull you down.”

First responders, EMTs, and paramedics are more than just people who drive the ambulance, fire truck, or police car to the scene of the incident. These people are awake at all hours of the day to help others. In addition to knowing how to perform a multitude of tasks for a plethora of medical scenarios, first responders have to cope with the emotions that come with not being able to save everyone they come in contact with.