“If my heart could only forget the things my eyes have seen.”
After 15 years of full-time, and 15 years of volunteer public safety service, this phrase constantly finds itself echoing through my mind a little more each and every day.
30 years of responding to medical, trauma, and fire calls, have definitely left their mark on my life. And one thing I know to be true is that whether a person is a part of fire services, law enforcement, or emergency medical services, personal trauma is a constant companion that is carried along in the heart, mind and emotions, no matter what safe guards are taken to fend it off.
No matter what courses you take in your training, no matter what preparation you undertake, there is no way to fully prepare oneself for the initial shock that you receive when you arrive on the scene of each and every call.
Seeing humanity in its worst moments, broken bodies, broken families, broken lives. Walking into each and every situation, trying to restore order, health, wholeness, safety and security, and then, after the call, returning to your station to grab a shower, a fresh uniform, or head to the nearest restaurant for a meal only to turn around and do it again.
Responders try and fight it off using social adjustment, cognitive reason, or other coping mechanism, but the inner nagging stays behind the eyes.
Visions that can’t be shaken; emotions we think we’d be better not feeling. Most in the West today have little preparation for dealing with the effects of suffering, and we have tried to deny the reality of suffering in many ways.
The “American Dream” has left little room for understanding human brokenness and pain and, as a result, when we are faced with great tragedy, we are hard pressed to face it for long lengths of time.
At the beginning of a career, a responder may have an abundance of courage, vigor and vitality, and naïve idealism; but, as the stressors of the job encroaches on them, they find that they begin to face a corrosion of the soul.
After a while, that well spring of energy, idealism, and passion begins to become depleted and it is replaced with anger, cynicism, disillusionment and despair, professional misbehavior, substance abuse and other activities, which may include suicide.
There are steps which can be undertaken to help prevent this from taking its full toll on the public safety servant. Seeking daily inspiration is paramount as it will reconnect one with formerly lost idealism and passion.
Long work hours is a barrier to be overcome but effort must be made to re-center one’s emotions, thoughts, and personal outlook. Spending time reflecting on one’s personal beliefs, making frequent spiritual deposits through conferences or writings that delve into those beliefs and seeks to explain pain and suffering, begins to build a framework for existing in a world where pain and suffering are a stark reality, as opposed to ambiguous concepts that can be easily dismissed.
Don’t confuse who you are with what you do. A well-developed sense of personal identity apart from the career is of utmost importance. Your commitment to the career, your role as a spouse or parent, member of society cannot come from your role as a responder, but must come from the values of who you are outside of the career.
Confront the pain. As responders, our tendency is to deny our own hurt while we confront the hurts others experience. Society, and our co-workers, often dismisses the reality of the pain we feel. It is seen as a weakness, a flaw in our character that detracts from us. However, it is actually the proof of our humanity, compassion, and nobility of spirit.
Confronting pain, suffering, evil, and injustice is painful work, but becoming desensitized is not an option. That is what communicates to us that we honor the work that we are performing.
No responder who is ever exposed to the sadness of life can ever walk away unscathed - go through a career of confronting the things that have been mentioned, without becoming just a bit jaded. But don’t let that jaded nature become who you are. Don’t beat yourself up for bearing the scars of the job. Know that it was a gentle offering given to a community in desperate need.