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Memory can motivate, distract or potentially paralyze us

Human memory is more than information storage and retrieval


“Sometimes, there is something about the situation, something about the caller or the patient or the bystanders that reminds us of someone we know and care about,” writes Myers.

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Training and refining our skills at responding to emergencies involves the memorization and use of a vast amount of information. Our brains rapidly take in and process mountains of data. In that regard, we sometimes imagine that we function like computers. Speed and accuracy are essential tools of the trade.

Yet to call a computer’s power “memory” might be a misnomer. The Irish poet and scholar, John O’Donohue, writes, “the computer industry has hijacked the notion of memory. To say that computers have memory is false. A computer has storage and recall. Human memory is, however, more refined, sacred and personal. Memory has its own inner selectivity and depth.”

In the brief time between when the phone rings or the tones go off and when we begin care, we do engage in an automated process. This is by design. Call it storage and recall. The clinical skills we have stored away in our brains are quickly retrieved, synthesized and put to work. Any trained dispatcher, EMT or paramedic can draw on the same body of knowledge and know how to respond to a crisis. Study, practice and testing ensure that SOPs are properly understood, stored in the brain and accessible when needed.

Staying focused

But unlike computers, people are not machines. We also have memory; human memory. We remember the previous times we encountered a situation like this one. We remember what worked, and what didn’t.

And, sometimes, there is something about the situation, something about the caller or the patient or the bystanders that reminds us of someone we know and care about. That is more than information storage and retrieval. That is memory. It can motivate us, bring the scene into sharper perspective, possibly distract or potentially paralyze us. Often, we push those memories aside, let ourselves go numb for a while, and let the stress hormones do their job of keeping us focused.

Then, when the call is complete, or at the end of the shift, we can take some time and space to tend to our human side. We are not computers, for which a simple reset will do. Yes, information storage and recall has its place. As O’Donohue observes, though, memory has its own selectivity and depth. Human memory is more refined, sacred and personal. That is where empathy, compassion and deep caring come from. No computer can go there.


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Russ Myers is a chaplain with Allina Health EMS, St. Paul, Minnesota, and author of “Because We Care: A Handbook for Chaplaincy in Emergency Medical Services.” He can be contacted at