My New “Worst Call Ever” Has Arrived

Ask any EMS or other public safety professional what stereotypical trope in conversation they hate the most, and they’ll probably tell you not to ask “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen on a call?” – and for good reason. We don’t like revisiting those calls. We don’t need to trudge them back up into memory for your own personal entertainment. We have our own ways of dealing with the feelings and memories surrounding those calls, and a lot of them are private, sensitive topics and are not for public discussion. Certainly not around the dinner table, or standing at the grill in the backyard over a couple of beers. Not only that, but you, as an outside observer, likely have no idea the amount of trauma you’re about to be subjected to by engaging in experiencing such a traumatic experience in whatever vivid detail we decide to come up with in response to your imposition. Asking a public safety professional to rehash their “worst call ever” is like asking a loved one “what’s your most painful memory and would you mind sharing that with me just for giggles?”

Well, in this blog I’ve written and thought about a number of different types of calls. Hard things to think about. Calls that stick with me and even haunt me, make me relive them, thinking about them over and over again, wondering if I was good enough, did enough, if I was strong enough for my patient, for my partner, for my peers. I guess I’ve been “doing this job” for a long enough time that I kind of started to feel like I had “seen some shit” and knew what this job was about, and felt relatively secure that, although I knew that I could still very easily be surprised by humanity’s ability to be stupid or hateful or harmful towards one another, I felt confident that I was prepared for whatever came next.

I did not expect to arrive on-scene at a gruesome, tragic, fatality MVC for somebody I considered to be a close friend and colleague. I did not expect to have to maintain my composure as a supervisor on this type of scene, shielding my crews from the knowledge that a friend and colleague had been killed, while they worked just 20 yards away on another mangled vehicle, working to save complete strangers from their own injuries. I did not expect to be left standing alone on the scene, accompanied only by a couple of law enforcement officers, after my EMS units and the fire department had cleared the scene, waiting for the arrival of the funeral home transport, standing watch over my friend. Most of all, I did not expect to replay my actions on that scene over, and over, and over, and over again across the coming minutes, hours, days, and weeks.

I remember early in my EMS training that I had some nightmares about what it would be like if I had to provide care for somebody I knew. I worried that being so close to somebody, a person that I knew, that I might freeze up, finding myself unable to provide care and would forget all of my training, leading to the worst possible disaster I could imagine – allowing harm to come to somebody I know and care about when I should have been able to prevent it or fix it. I had the fortune (or misfortune?) of providing EMS care on a number of occasions to close friends at several agencies that I’ve worked for, and they were, overall, positive experiences. I was able to provide calm, be a caring voice, a comforting touch, help them through a difficult time. In this case, though, there was nothing to be done. The laws of physics had done their horrible work already before I even arrived on-scene. Metal, plastic, and glass doing what inanimate objects do when they are subjected to incomprehensible amounts of force and compelled to occupy a space taken up by something much more forgiving – a human body.

So, now I have a new “worst call ever.” I have a new horrible memory to occupy my thoughts when I stop moving and stop working. When I lie on my bed and can’t fall asleep, but my eyes are closed, I can still see and smell and hear the scene, the sounds, everything going on, everything that I wished I could do but knew I didn’t have the power to change what had already happened. I have something new to work through in therapy. I know it will get better with time, because things like this always do. But for now, it remains very new, and feels very fresh in my brain, and I would have rather not been able to be so surprised.

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