Words by Grace Buck
At 11:49 pm, the words flashed over the small, dimly lit screen and my heart dropped into my stomach, “13-year-old, hanging, unconscious, not breathing, CPR in progress”. We pulled up outside a residential address on a quiet street, our presence an alarming reminder that tragedy happens everywhere, even in the unlikeliest of places. The ambulance was stripped of vital equipment, and we made our way up the driveway where we were met by two young children, both no older than seven, clinging to each other. They didn’t utter a word but ushered us through the house into a bathroom. As we turned the corner, her brother, presumably only a year or two older than herself was pushing hard and fast on her chest, whilst their mother sat defeated at her head stroking her hair. The shock and numbness of what was going on had rendered her cruelly calm as if she was already beginning to accept the fate we were desperately going to try and change.
We began our resuscitation after directing the family out of the bathroom, but the more we worked, the more unaccepting I became of the potential outcome. Disappointment had never felt so heavy, for the time she remained in asystole, and I felt my chest deflate with every shock we couldn’t deliver. Unfortunately, and despite everyone’s best efforts, the resuscitation attempt was not successful, and we allowed her family some time alone with their daughter. However, the weight of what happened didn’t truly set in until we were packing up the bags, throwing away the discarded failed IV’s, and covering her with a blanket. It didn’t feel real until we left without her, and I realised the strangest thing in the world, was watching death happen right in front of you, to someone you didn’t know existed until thirty-five minutes ago.
Until now, I had always felt semi-prepared for my first patient death and was under the impression that the first, would always be the hardest. Yet, this wasn’t even my first, I’d had another cardiac arrest eight shifts prior that met the same unfortunate outcome. However, for some reason, I didn’t feel as guilt-ridden, and burdened with the unknown then, as I did right now. I thought about her the rest of the shift and continued to think about her when I got home, and then I tried to wash off the sorrow in the shower and eventually fell asleep in the room next to my thirteen-year-old brother.
When people asked about it, I remained quite blasé, as though the experience was merely another clinical scenario, but I was afraid if I mentioned how I was impacted, it would set in stone that I wasn’t ‘cut out’ for the paramedic profession anymore. Hence, I omitted the parts where I dreamt about the sound of the metronome for three nights straight or massaged my arms to get rid of the burning sensation from performing CPR, or how I constantly wondered how her family was coping and prayed for some sort of sign they were okay. I didn’t tell anyone how I’d give anything in the world to change her mind, or change the way she saw herself, and a year on, I still would.
Now, a year on, and three placements down, I understand my response to what I had witnessed was normal, and that feeling that way, didn’t make me incapable of being a good paramedic. Empathy and compassion, whilst occasionally a double-edged sword, don’t disadvantage my progression in the career, I just had to learn how to cope with those feelings in a healthy way, and not condemn myself for caring. I also had to learn to let go of the emotional ‘what ifs’ and come to terms with the fact that not every story has a happy ending.