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Damar Hamlin: A pass or fail exam for the EMS profession

Community risk reduction and improving mental health resources for providers


“Just like we would never hold a reaction that a child has to an injury against them, because they haven’t been equipped with appropriate coping mechanisms, we can’t hold the public’s reaction to the Damar Hamlin injury as a reasonable comparison to how we should react,” writes Fuller.

AP Photo/Jeff Dean

About two-thirds of the way through the Bills/Bengals football game, the NFL world was shaken by a life-threatening situation faced by one of their players. Damar Hamlin made a seemingly routine tackle to the ground, stood up and fell backward with no obvious indications of life.

I was shocked at how quickly one of my paramedic friends texted me asking if I thought Hamlin was a prime example of commotio cordis.

His injury presented as an unfortunate, but educational opportunity to witness real time cardiac arrest recognition and the actions of trained bystanders. As a profession, we should be jumping on this highly publicized incident as a perfect conversation starter for our community risk reduction efforts.

Unfortunately, not everyone in our profession is recognizing this educational opportunity. While EMS1 highlighted some of the comments made by our best and brightest, those comments have not been the most visible.

Instead, our social media feeds are peppered with viral posts from people questioning, “Why are we expected to move on from a cardiac arrest to out next call, when these professional athletes couldn’t go on?”

Mental Health

Mental health, and the emotional and physical traumas that our profession faces on a regular basis, has become a topic of serious discussion over the past several years. This shows an incredible advance from the older expectation of “just deal with it.” We understand that PTS is real and has many different presentations. With that being said, I don’t believe that it is reasonable to compare what our providers see day in and day out with what people from other professions may be able to cope with.

In reality, we do a poor job of providing the education and tools necessary to handle many of the chronic stressors that we deal with, but the disclaimer is that many of us knew what some of those stressors would be when we started in our field. It’s nearly impossible to understand how you may react to those stressors when you’re finally exposed to them, but the idea that you would see people in life-threatening, and other emotionally challenging, scenarios should not be new.

None of these football players walked out on that field expecting to see one of their own collapse in cardiac arrest. Likewise, none of the viewers expected to watch an incredibly healthy young athlete potentially take his last breaths. Just like we would never hold a reaction that a child has to an injury against them, because they haven’t been equipped with appropriate coping mechanisms, we can’t hold the public’s reaction to the Damar Hamlin injury as a reasonable comparison to how we should react.

Please don’t misunderstand any of this to mean that as EMS providers we must be “OK” with what we see or do, but don’t expect the normal public to have the same tools to handle these incidents that we do. Just like it’s inappropriate for one provider to say to another that a specific call or scenario shouldn’t bother them, comparing our profession with the coping mechanisms of another is like comparing apples and wrenches.

Risk reduction

These comparisons do not serve to advance our profession. Instead, let’s focus on the opportunity to advocate for community risk reduction education, by posing and answering questions like:

  • Why do schools and athletic events need to have ready access to an AED?
  • Why is bystander CPR so important?
  • What are some of the risks associated with the athletic activities our kids are participating in?

Finally, we as first responders have different experiences, but that does not mean that any one of us are invincible to the possible complications of chronic stressors. We should feel comfortable discussing these issues with each other and our administrations. Continuing the conversation of the mental health stressors that we may face is important to creating a safer, more resilient, working environment for all of us, it just must be accomplished in the correct manner.

If you, or someone you know, are experiencing any signs or symptoms of possible complications from the stress related to our jobs, it is important that you reach out and ask for help. Many of our employers have employee assistance programs (EAP) that can provide resources. The Code Green Campaign has made incredible strides in providing resources to providers. This is not a one-size-fits-all scenario, so make sure that you find the provider and treatment plans that work the best for you.

Additional resources

Learn more about how to start a conversation to improve mental health at your agency with these resources:

Make the investment in your people

Tips from Boston EMS for starting a health and wellness program to support member resiliency

How RAA launched a peer support program

Resiliency training and a CISM program laid a foundation for the Richmond Ambulance Authority to support its providers’ mental health

How to foster a mentally healthy environment

Learn how peer support programs, EAPs and chaplaincy can help your providers weather emotional storms and mental health crises

Become a burnout scholar to prevent, treat burnout in yourself and others

Burnout is a crisis in all healthcare professions, including EMS, and to make it better will take an all-hands-on-deck approach

It’s like immunizing your brain: Depression, PTSD and suicide prevention

Seven resolutions for increasing your resilience to prevent psychological and emotional trauma in emergency services

Jason Fuller is a former battalion chief for a municipal fire department in Southeastern North Carolina. Surpassing 15 years of service in the fire and EMS professions, Jason is an experienced instructor and provider. Jason seeks to use his passion for the field of EMS to impact change in agencies across the nation as a public safety consultant. He accomplishes this by helping fire and EMS departments communicate with their communities and stakeholders, while encouraging growth in our field’s educational standards. Connect with Jason on LinkedIn.