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For EMS providers the holidays can be the hardest time of the year

All caregivers can find solace in small victories and salvation in providing comfort to those who are suffering

The sights and sounds of the holiday season bring a rush of excitement, anticipation, cheerfulness and goodwill. It is during this season we seek to have our faith in humanity and hope for the future, restored.

But for many first responders, the opposite is all too real. Stress, exhaustion, financial pressures and a daily front row seat to the pain, suffering and heartbreak experienced by patients and their families can take an even heavier toll than usual this time of year. We carry with us images that few people experience.

Working a cardiac arrest under the glow of holiday lights.

Transporting an injured child who will spend Christmas clinging to life in a hospital bed.

Arriving on an accident scene to find brightly wrapped gifts strewn amongst the twisted wreckage of a shiny Buick. Finding out that the driver was a grandmother who lost a battle with black ice on her way to visit.

Taking care of our own

The holidays are a dangerous time for those whose chosen vocation — or avocation — is service to others experiencing the worst day of their lives.

Being an EMS volunteer is a double-edged sword. Volunteers usually have the freedom to remain on a scene and do the extra little things that provide comfort to neighbors and family; to limit their exposure to suffering because their role is part time; and to participate in joyful community activities like Christmas parades, tree lightings and gift deliveries.

The other side of that sword can swiftly bring the most seasoned provider to his knees. The call you respond to in your hometown is likely going to be a neighbor, a friend or possibly even a member of your own family. You will go home and lie awake until you have to go to work, mentally and physically exhausted, to perform tasks that in contrast to lifesaving just seem meaningless, among co-workers who have not had experienced horror and suffering. Your phone will ring nonstop because everyone in town wants answers and details about an event that even if you could talk about, you sure as hell wouldn’t want to relive.

Leadership counts now more than ever

We need to be mindful of taking care of our own amid the chaos and bustle of the holiday season.

Make sure that every member of your squad has peer support during the holiday season. Set up a buddy system to make sure that no one slips through the cracks. You need to be aware of, and to rally the troops for, anyone in your agency who is struggling with personal or financial issues, or is coping with the aftermath of someone else’s tragedy.

Create multiple opportunities for social events. Hold a cookie or ornament swap, a holiday movie night with the kids, a potluck dinner with inexpensive grab bag gifts, or provide a babysitter at the station so that members can shop and run errands with peace of mind. These are all ways to strengthen the bond and reinforce a sense of belonging, and brotherhood.

Ensure that someone is on-call day and night for moral support in the event a crew member experiences a personal- or call-related crisis. Find a way to thank each member individually for his or her sacrifice and contribution.

Give your members gifts that are thoughtful and relevant. Create an Amazon Smile account for your nonprofit agency, and dedicate the funds towards purchasing meaningful first responder gifts like jackets, conference passes, or restaurant gift cards. Let your members suggest and choose the best ideas. Amazon Smile costs nothing to join and gives your community an easy way to support their local community nonprofit EMS.

What you do matters

EMTs tend to need immediate gratification and validation, and some providers become discouraged and resentful from responding to the 3:00 a.m. unknown medical that could be an intoxicated person. This is the time of year when loneliness, addiction, grief or depression can be the root cause of such calls. Listen to your members’ frustration, and then gently reinforce the idea that an empathetic provider may actually save countless lives and relieve untold anguish by the simple act of holding a hand and listening without judgment or prejudice.

Ironically, the words of a fictional character, a tortured and burned-out paramedic say it best:

“I realized that my training was useful in less than ten percent of the calls, and saving lives was rarer than that. After a while, I grew to understand that my role was less about saving lives than about bearing witness. I was a grief mop.

It was enough that I simply turned up.”
Bringing out the Dead (Scorsese, 1999)

Find solace in small victories and salvation in providing comfort to those who have suffered the unimaginable. What you do matters.


A time of faith, hope and random acts of kindness

The holiday season is a state of mind not limited or attached to a religious affiliation. It is a time to reflect and reaffirm our faith in the importance of the local, personal service to community made possible by volunteer responders. It is a time to strengthen bonds and build momentum, giving hope for either continued success or a fresh start for the New Year. It is a time when the smallest kindness can reap the greatest reward.

Take care of yourselves, your partners, and your community. Be the light in the darkness, the voice of reassurance, the calm in the storm.

Volunteering is its own reward.

Nancy Magee combines a business woman’s perspective on marketing, efficiency and customer service with an EMS volunteer’s heart. Nancy, a Connecticut native, now resides in Louisiana and offers her Volunteer Survival Series workshops and consulting services through MEDIC Training Solutions to agencies across the country. Contact Nancy at