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Vivid flashbacks after fatal drowning response

If I close my eyes, I can bring myself to that beach and remember the dog, the boyfriend, the hot sun and her blonde hair

By EMT, 9 years in EMS

It was so hot that afternoon.

Among the many vivid memories I have of that day is how much I was sweating while standing on the beach of a river in Maryland and waiting for something to happen.

The call had come out for a possible drowning and our entire volunteer EMS, rescue and dive teams were dispatched. The first of many on scene, my partner and I questioned her boyfriend who had fallen asleep on the beach while she went swimming with their dog. Thirty minutes later, he awoke to the dog barking and no sign of his girlfriend.

As part of the EMS crew, I wasn’t involved with the search and rescue. I was simply waiting for the boats and divers to find something. Forty minutes into the incident, I was sure they never would and we briefly discussed returning to service. I turned toward the water just in time to see a diver emerge from the water with her body over his shoulder, lifeless, pale and covered in sand.

Suddenly, he was walking toward me and though I had been in similarly serious situations, I was overcome with the idea that at that moment and in that place, I was expected to do something with her.

She was young, in her late twenties, though older than me, and I remember catching her head just as it was about to hit the stretcher – placed there by the diver. Then it all became automatic: assessment, compressions, pads, shock, intubation, oxygen, drugs, shock, transport, transfer of care and time of death.

We cleaned up, restocked and ran several more calls that day. My partner and I talked a little about the call, but nothing extraordinary.

Getting home that night I was already beginning to feel off: irritable, not hungry, very tired and anti-social. This being the opposite of my normal affect, I knew something was wrong, but didn’t know what.

That evening, my roommate surprised me while coming around a corner and I reacted violently and foolishly, actually kicking a hole in the wall with my work boots still on.

This was the first of several nights without sleeping. At my office job the next day, I told the story of the drowning to some friends, but felt emotionally numb to the death I had witnessed. Two days later, having hardly eaten a thing, I broke down at the office and started crying in a bathroom stall for no apparent reason. I started having flashbacks to the scene. I would sit at my desk looking at the clock on my computer, followed by a memory so vivid I began sweating and when I returned 30 or 40 minutes had passed.

My partner called me later that week and asked how I was doing. I had to tell him the truth: not well. He suggested the name of a counselor who could talk to me about my symptoms and offer a path forward.

I went the next morning and as it happened, all I needed was to talk to someone unattached to the situation and to feel listened to. I told her that awful story and how I hadn’t slept or eaten since it happened. I told her how numb I felt and I told her how it didn’t seem any different than other serious calls I had been on in the past. She listened and talked to me about how acute stress reactions are normal for first responders. Within the next several hours and days, my appetite returned and I slept for the first time in a week.

Over time, what has really helped was to tell others what had happened and how it had affected me. Six years later, my memories are just as vivid and if I close my eyes I can bring myself to that beach and remember the dog, the boyfriend, the hot sun and her blonde hair.

I continue to volunteer to this day, owing these past several years entirely to my partner and mentor who recognized my symptoms and simply reached out to find out if I needed anything.

I had no history of mental illness and never thought I’d be so impacted by an EMS call.

I’m grateful for the projects like The Code Green Campaign, which shine a light on the difficulties many of us face with responding to harrowing scenes, day in and day out.

We must look out for one another and cannot be afraid to put our hands on the shoulder of our colleagues and ask how they’re doing. I’m so very thankful that someone asked me.

The Code Green Campaign calls a ‘code alert’ on the mental health of EMTs and paramedics by breaking the silence about mental illness in EMS by sharing the stories of those who have been there. The Code Green Campaign has selected this story and we are glad to share it with EMS1 readers. Learn more about the Code Green Campaign.