From the dangerous to the gruesome and the downright ridiculous, walk a day in an ambulance officer’s shoes and you’ll see all of the above. And forget about the nightshifts. The Gap is paramedic Benjamin Gilmour’s unflinching, confronting, and at times hilarious, account of life on the frontlines of our emergency services. Confessions, cynicism and vegetables where the sun don’t shine: here are Gilmour’s top five best and worst things about life as a ‘grief sponge’.
Best five things about being a paramedic?
1. The camaraderie. Your fellow paramedics are brothers and sisters. You’ve shared intense moments of weirdness, suffering and death. You depend on each other, occasionally for survival. Like soldiers who’ve fought side-by-side, there’s a powerful bond. It’s love – platonic love.
2. The non-emergencies. Heart attacks and car accidents? Forget about it. Think: insomnia, alien abductions, stiff necks, bugs in ears, hot flushes and sore throats. You’re a highly-trained Band-Aid applier and lullaby-singer, expert in yoga-breathing and massage. Some might think all this belongs on the list of ‘worst five things’. But I’d rather give a lozenge than CPR.
3. The secrets. People save their secrets just for you. Or so it seems. It must be the uniform, the trust – I don’t know. But the ambulance is a modern-day confessional. People talk about their love affairs, their husbands’ penises, their petty crimes, their serious crimes, everything. And I always ask for more.
4. The comedy. Life and death can be ridiculous. You start to see humour in horrible things. You accept it’s a normal way to cope; if you don’t laugh you’ll cry. When death catches people with their pants down (literally, often), you might save your wisecrack for later. But try and keep a poker face when a patient has a vegetable up the rectum.
5. The reward. Not a reward like your pay or a medal (or even karma, for that matter) but a genuine gratification from helping those in need. Seeing the look of pain on a patient’s face dissolve after a shot of morphine, the relief in the voice of a woman you’ve helped off the floor, the gratitude for removing a vegetable from a rectum. These small, simple things are the true rewards.
Worst five things about being a paramedic?
1. The shift work. Nightshifts can be exciting early on. Flashing lights, brawls, parties. But soon they start to hurt. Before long you’re hurting more than your patients are. Not to mention the weekends, when you watch laughing people drinking beer and frolicking at the beach. You’ll want to drink beer and frolic too. Instead you’ll be sent to a grimy flat for a man with diarrhoea.
2. The grief. You’re a sponge for it – a grief sponge. Even when you’re fully soaked you’ve gotta keep sponging. You can’t say ‘no’. It’s your job. Moreover, you actually care. You can’t help sponging the grief. If only you weren’t such a tiny little sponge and the grief wasn’t an ocean.
3. The scars. Emotional wounds of trauma may heal, but scars remain. Every scar is a story, a memory of a battle you’d rather forget. The triggers are everywhere: an intersection where a car killed a girl, or the house of a man who took his own life. Some wounds you think have healed, but they haven’t. For those you might need help.
4. The view. You develop a skewed perspective of society. You begin to wonder if just about everybody is psychotic or suicidal or smoking ice. You don’t see much happiness. People don’t call ambulances to their parties, weddings or bar mitzvahs unless something terrible has happened. Like the party where a girl inhaled too much helium, or the wedding where the bride had a panic attack, or the bar mitzvah where a kid got swung round by his neck and it broke.
5. The cynicism. A few months into the job and the first signs appear. It starts with an itch, a sigh, a grunt, a curl of the lip. A bit of cynicism can be funny. But you can’t let it spread. It must be resisted. If it sets in good and proper it’ll eat you up. It’ll suck the joy out of life – yours and everyone else’s. If you get caught rolling your eyes you’ll know you’ve crossed the line.