• What CAN happen when we ask our colleagues if they are OK

    by Jess Morton. Last modified: 02/04/14



    In 2006, I was a very junior & young nurse. I was working a night shift on the maternity ward & was asked to escort a foetus to the mortuary with the wards man.  I was at a point in my life at that time where babies were on the top of my ‘To-Do” list. I was clucky and had spent a good period of my teenage years babysitting, and generally hanging out with small children.

    This little foetus had fingers & toes and just looked like a very small baby.

    I remember that long walk to the morgue, in silence and with tears in my eyes whilst the wardsman awkwardly played with his swipe card. I also remember the 2 weeks off work I took, the nightmares that would wake me and the anxiety I felt about ever being sent to work in maternity again.

    Not one person ever asked me if I was ok, and truth be told, I really wasn’t!

    We, as clinicians (future & current) do face situations that are outside the realm of the general publics’ understanding. We have experienced sights, sounds & smells that possibly haunt us. We see sick people and we are often enveloped in the sadness that surrounds those people.

    But…how often after a bad callout, an arrest, a young palliative patient or the dreaded SIDS cases do we stop, call a “Time Out” and ask our mates if they are ok. We know that often, the adrenaline kicks in and we are in autopilot for that job. We tune out to whats happening around us at the time and only concentrate on the critical matters.

    I know from my own experience, it is when I go home and things have quietened down that my mind starts flowing. The senses that had I tuned out from suddenly return…My mind wanders to what ‘could have been’, what the inevitable outcomes WILL be, and how the bystanders must have felt.

    I have spoken with paramedics (mostly males) who describe their symptoms of depression and PTSD after certain ‘jobs’. They revealed that they are often given a debrief on the day. In some ambulance services, they may speak with a counsellor the day after. However, that is often where the journey ends. These paramedics have shared just how anxious they have been, and how deep that pit of depression was for them after these particularly horrific jobs. However, it is also something they do tend to keep to themselves.

    These guys, in raw honesty told me that THEY perceive that it is like a crack in their ‘manhood’ or the expectation of emotional resilience if they are still affected days, weeks or months later.

    I know of an Intensive Care Paramedic  who attended a paediatric arrest in a small town, of a child he knew and whom went to school with his own children. By his own admission, this arrest and subsequent death still affects him years on. Past those first few days, no one asked if he was ok.

    I have been told similar stories by other paramedics. Most agree that it is the paed jobs that affect them the most. However the cumulative effect of attending countless fatal MVA’s, suicides, domestic violence, drug overdoses and so on is what leads to burn out and often depression.

    So what can be achieved if we continue, on a regular basis to ask our colleagues if they are ok?

    • We prove that we care.
    • We show  our ‘mates’ that their well-being is important to us.
    • We recognise that sometimes, we aren’t ok! We recognise that some jobs will hurt us more than others..
    • We are giving our mate the chance to say “I’m not ok” and letting them voice what they need to in a safe situation. – We are opening a door that may not otherwise be opened by someone else and that they may feel too embarrassed to.
    • We bring to light the higher than average suicide rates from the paramedic community and the desire to help stop that.
    • We become better leaders and better team players. The teamwork should not end when the patient is offloaded at the Emergency department or once the police or coroner turns up at the scene.

    We need to be prepared though. You need to be prepared that your colleague sitting next to you in that ambulance may just say “I’m not ok”. And we need to be prepared to know how to manage that.

    Ask your ride-along student for their number. Call them a week later, just ask them ‘how they’re going’. It would be  an incredible show of leadership and peer support to do that. Reassure students and early career paramedics that is ok & human to be affected and share details on how they can seek further support.

    Please start asking that question. Ask beyond those first few days after a traumatic incident, Be prepared for whatever the answer may be & if you are ever asked, please be honest.

    Your honesty may just empower a conversation you never thought possible.

    Last week, the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that the deaths from suicide in 2012 had reached a 10-year high.

    Suicide is largely a preventable death.

    Prevention can start with a “Hey mate, R U OK?”

    Jess xx

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    Editors Note: A 2013 study looked at stress, depression and anxiety amongst US Paramedics & EMTs, and found around 6% were stressed, depressed and suffering from anxiety. A 2012 study in Canada showed that Paramedics have the highest rates of PTSD amongst emergency services personnel. Both of these studies will be published here on this site tomorrow (03/04/2014) for your perusal.


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    Jess Morton

    Jess Morton

    Student Paramedic.
    I am an Australian undergraduate Student Paramedic. I study part-time as I am also Mum to 2 beautiful boys. I am passionate about Friendship, Family & #FOAMed. I am keen to get more experienced as well as student Paramedics into the FOAM world to enable better access to education to result in better patient care. My interests include photography, thick shakes and sleeping in past 6am.

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    10 thoughts on “What CAN happen when we ask our colleagues if they are OK

    • KIdocs.org says:

      Indeed. Across the tribes – ask “are you OK?”

      …and mean it.

      Thanks Jess, nice post.

    • Jess Morton Jess says:

      I have only just seen these comments. Thank you so much to both of you. This means alot to me..
      And really good point with the “meaning it” comment.

    • Paul McNamara says:

      Thanks Jess – good post.

      Frontline clinicians do emotional labour. Looking after our emotional selves should be given the same priority as other acts of self-care, it should be just part of the workplace routine like universal precautions and safe lifting are.

      Some ideas re self care and clinical supervision via these blog posts:

      “That Was Bloody Stressful! What’s Next?” http://meta4RN.com/bloody

      “Nurturing the Nurturers” http://meta4RN.com/nurturers

      • Jess Morton Jess says:

        Paul, The fact you took the time to read this and then also share it and leave a comment is quite humbling.
        Thankyou and thanks for all your contributions via your own site.

    • Valerie Schoen says:

      Jess, keep up the good work and take care of your beautiful soul. Your honesty and wisdom will hopefully change a difficult culture where we’re expected to be hard.

    • Jess Morton Jess says:

      Hi Valerie. Thankyou for your comment. It is a hard road to try and change culture. It is one small step at a time. But I believe we should be starting those conversations today.

      Thankyou so much for taking the time to read it.

    • Ross Beckley says:

      Well written Jess, and something alot of “Outsiders” dont stop to think about how we are ALL affected by any loss of life OR serious injury. I spent nearly my whole career avoiding the stresses of the job, and the legacy of PTSD is now with me for the rest of my life.

    • sean says:

      after 30 years as a firefighter and the accumulation of memories I could take no more.
      like water dripping into a bucket that slowly fills up, the dirt lies at the bottom like repressed memories, then some well meaning psychiatrist thinks reliving the event will reduce the trauma. The fact is left undisturbed 90% of the bucket is fine clear water, stir it up and the whole lot is a murky slurry good for nothing.
      Short of a lobotomy it is something you have to carry with you.

      • Sheri George says:

        I fully understand the bucket analogy. I too have PTSD and my psychiatrist has ( I describe as ) dug it all up with a pitch fork including past childhood experiences. Now I feel I’m juggling it all in the air and struggling to put all the pieces together again…. It’s such a hard struggle good luck with yours.
        Sheri George

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