I thought being a paramedic would help me cope with my parents’ deaths. Or even prevent them. I was wrong.

Allow me to explain.

When I first applied to Beds & Herts Ambulance & Paramedic Service in 2000, it was a partly a decision borne of a kind of naive, morbid curiosity. I was eager to take on what I thought to be a varied and challenging job, but I wasn’t entirely sure I was up to it. I wanted to test myself, and I wanted the self-respect that came with being able to cope with difficult scenarios.

In hindsight, I don’t think anyone is up to job in the beginning. Emergency ambulance work is the sort of occupation that no amount of training, preparation and advice can completely protect you from some of the tests to come. It’s a trial by (blood, shit and) fire* that can make you feel that you’re in over your head until you learn to cope.

[*disclaimer: fire is obviously the fire brigade’s remit, but the blood and shit is definitely all us.]

The teacher of those lessons is mostly experience, but the contribution of your colleagues – both peers and those senior – is also critical.

There’s a kind of unspoken tough love – a combination of hazing, camaraderie, and tactical neglect – that takes place between new recruits and veteran staff which ultimately leads you to a point where you can either cope with the pressures and responsibilities of death, life and everything in between (and to be honest, it’s mostly the in between), or you get out. There are also some who get to this point where they should get out and don’t, but that’s a topic for another day.

My point is that throughout my progress from naive and cocky trainee, through competent clinician to embittered veteran, and beyond to broken paramedic, I was always content that, whatever happened, I was honing the skills and the mindset needed to be able to save my own when the time came.

The incentive was there on every attendance – but especially the cardiac arrests – to push for excellence, to go that extra mile, to leave no stone unturned because that’s what you’d want if it was your Mum or Dad.

In my mind, I’d frequently play out scenarios involving the collapse of a parent, working through all of the outcomes and eventualities like a scriptwriter exploring plot ideas or an actor endlessly rehearsing. All so I’d be prepared on the night.

The night never came.

Instead, in a cruel twist of fate, I’ve had to endure watching the unexpected early decline and death of both parents in long, drawn-out bedside vigils. In both cases they succumbed to diseases that ruined their minds before their bodies were ready to give up.

Those final hours watching their starved, dehydrated husks slowly shut down made a mockery of every life-saving skill I’d learned. I just had to watch, helpless, as the people who made me struggled and faded without saying goodbye.

Perhaps some of the softer skills came in useful during the ordeal; the ability to know when to do something, or when to do nothing. But knowing HOW to do nothing is harder. Knowing how to cope. I suspect these life moments are no more or less challenging whatever your background or training.

In any case, cope I did. But at a cost.

I withdrew from many aspects of my former life, including social media, in part because my participation was becoming a very negative experience which, without the security and validation that my parents provided me, had a far more profound effect. I found the social landscape of emotionally-led politics and 40th birthdays incendiary. Issues became more visceral, hurtful comments more harmful, my responses more aggressive. With the loss of the emotionally anchoring effect of my parents, I’d lost a maturity and stability that I never knew they provided.

And those who remained in my life seemed poor surrogates. Friends and acquaintances now seemed flawed, misguided, self-serving, hedonistic people making terrible decisions of a daily basis. I found contact with people I knew well resulted increasingly in feelings of disappointment, betrayal or disgust.

But the truth was that no one had changed dramatically. No one but me. The lens through which I saw the world had changed forever and I could only see the darkness and very little of the light.

It has been a brutally challenging emotional journey from the death of my Mum five years ago to my Dad’s laboured demise last Summer, punctuated by the ongoing struggles my younger sisters and their families face.

But in enduring, things seem somewhat brighter again.

Now, existing in this post-parent world far younger than I expected, I’ve learned to think around the inevitability and futility of existence, mostly by ignoring those facts. Just like starting out in the ambulance service, its a case of enduring until you find your feet.

I’ve been fortunate to have an amazingly tolerant and understanding wife, and two wonderful daughters who are all the motivation I need to try to be my best self. I’ve learned a lot about managing my failings. Keeping myself in check is no longer something I can outsource to my parents. I’ve entered an era of total responsibility which, while daunting, is also oddly freeing.

On reflection, coping is just what happens when you carry on.


2 Comments

Graham · 29/04/2019 at 23:46

Hi Mathew,
I totally get where you’re coming from. Amb 999 is undoubtedly one of the toughest work environments – but is also a tremendous insight into society and culture, that would be hard to experience in many a lifetime – from any other career; and the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others.
Perhaps we don’t always join 999 for the ‘correct reasons’ (whatever that means), but i do know that WHATEVER our experience gained over the years – nothing can prepare us for the up-personal in-extremis, life family crisis. It can hit devastatingly hard, and you wonder why – with all the daily trauma you come across – why you suddenly cannot cope with what confronts you in your personal life.
And the reason we find it so hard, is simple – Love.
And so i would suggest to you that you can be totally proud of your response to your family crisis – your pain was for altruistic love – the emotion that cares deeply without personal gain.
We sometimes disregard the fact that death is a natural part of the life cycle.
Of course we want to preserve the life of our loved one’s – how can we let go?
You mentioned that as a result of your emotional conflict, you became aware of the ‘futility of life’. I have struggled myself with this same idea – but i sort of know the answer, because there can be no other answer; to live your life like each day is your last, to engage with others, be generous and kind, and above all to express the love you have.
This all sounds a bit excruciatingly wishy-washy, but if you take life on each day – it is certainly not ‘futile’.
My final bit of advice is to listen to some of the lectures of Alan Watts on Youtube. His philosophical life approach has helped me in my understanding of Life, the Universe, and Everything.
X. bless. Graham.

Kjmc63 · 04/05/2019 at 22:50

Hi Matthew,
I used to read your ‘broken Paramedic’ with delight as they just summed up our job perfectly. I did wonder why you’d stopped posting but now I understand completely.
As a fellow Paramedic I also faced my worst nightmare over the last couple of years. My so called skills did not make any difference to my sister’s cancer diagnosis in 2017 which left me feeling helpless. What it did enable me to do though was face Consultants without fear when demanding second and third opinions.
It also helped me to deal with the vomit and unblocking the NG tube without flinching and enabled me to administer injections. It let me reassure her that it was okay to refuse to have the very painful injections in her stomach when she was in the hospice. They were not going to make any difference at that point anyway. It helped me to liaise with nursing staff with knowledge and allowed me to recognise when the time was near.
It definitely did not help me watch her take the last laboured breath or make it easier to realise that my lovely, vibrant sister and best friend was dead. I would never be able to talk to her with the ease that only siblings have. She was 56 when she died – six months after her diagnosis.
Throughout her illness I also had my elderly Mum to protect.
My Mum died last year, 11 months after my sister. Her health had been getting worse after my sister died, but I’m afraid to say that she was let down very badly by the hospital in her last week. I sat by her bedside for 6 hours everyday watching her deteriorate. I took on hospital nurses and doctors but they failed to listen. They were too keen to write her off as an 84 year old woman with Dementia. She did not have Dementia – she had Delirium from the stomach infection she went into hospital with. I listened to her tell me there was a cat on the bed, she was about to get on a canal boat and that there was a fish swimming past. Classic hallucinations of delirium but only one doctor made that diagnosis in a thorough examination. I felt positive for the first time all week. Next day a different Doctor went back to the Dementia diagnosis. The previous Doctor had failed to write any notes after his examination!
My Mum died 12 hours later.
I felt unbelievably lost. I couldn’t save her. I am realistic and I know she was 84, but she died before she should have because of that Hospital. Ironically Mum used to fight to keep Stafford hospital open after the scandal and yet their failings yet again led to her death.
It is now 9 months since Mum died. I go to work, I laugh and joke with colleagues yet I cry every day. I have flashbacks to my Sister’s death and losing Mum. The same day Mum died I had the sudden realisation that I had lost the last person who would ever love me unconditionally. It hit me so hard.
So, the saying that life goes on? It’s true but so difficult when your entire life changes completely in 11 months.
At work I think I have become a better Paramedic in dealing with End of Life, vulnerable and genuine patients. I have also become more impatient with the idiots unfortunately, or understandably.
Keep posting Matthew – writing is good therapy. If I have any advice I’d just say, be kind to yourself and allow yourself to feel whatever it is you feel – anger then sadness then back to feeling lost. Never feel guilty for having a good time. It is what your loved ones would want. They (whoever they are) day that things like this makes us stronger – not true! It makes us vulnerable and wondering who is next.
I’m sorry this has been a bit of a tale, but it feels better to get it out.

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