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5 ways EMTs can be more caring to patients

You have to first possess and practice traits like kindness and compassion before you can pass the sentiment on to your patients

Imagine that you’re in the market for a classic sports car. You notice an online advertisement saying that an individual is giving away a mint-condition Shelby Mustang. You race over to his house, eager to get in on this unbelievable deal.

When you arrive, you’re greeted with a smile and told what you were hoping to hear.

“Sure I’ll give you a Mustang.” The man tells you. “It’s a beautiful car. ”

After patiently listening to his description of the vehicle, you anxiously ask, “Where is it? Can I see it?”

“Oh no, you can’t actually see it here, because I don’t have it,” he pleasantly explains.

Now your frustration begins to rise. Your suspicion that the deal was too good to be true comes bubbling to the surface. “Where is it?” you ask.

“I’m sorry, I don’t actually have the Shelby Mustang I was describing,” he explains. “But I am more than willing to give you one.” Smiling he adds, “After all, it’s the right thing to do. Doesn’t that make you feel good? Isn’t that enough?”

“I don’t care if you’d like to give me a car!” you exclaim, angry about the time you’ve wasted. “You can’t give me a car if you don’t have one.”

And with that you storm off, embarrassed that you were fooled by such a silly game.

You can’t give away what you don’t have

You can’t give away something that you don’t have. On the surface it seems as if nothing could be more obvious. Until you possess something, you are unable to choose to give it away. In fact, who would try to do such a ridiculous thing?

But we all do from time to time. We all make the same promise as my fictitious online advertiser on one occasion or another. In fact many of us play this ridiculous game every day that we come to work.

For instance, have you ever had a partner who was convinced that she could be compassionate toward her patient’s event though she had no sense of compassion? Or perhaps you know someone who is convinced that he can be a caregiver even though he doesn’t truly care about the individuals who typically dial 911 in the district.

Have you experienced individuals who believed that when they were dispatched on a call they could magically convey kindness, even though they were unkind to everyone else (including their coworkers)? Or perhaps you’ve met individuals who thought they could be calm and collected in the face of an emergency, even though they spent most of their waking hours stressed out and rushing from task to task.

Maybe you’ve worked alongside these individuals, or perhaps you know them more personally. They are every bit as earnest and well-meaning as our sports car advertiser, and they are every bit as misguided. They want to give away something without possessing it and, for some reason, they believe it will work.

How to possess what you want to give

If you don’t have kindness, compassion and caring within you, you can’t give it away to others. If you don’t practice empathy, calmness, peacefulness or confidence in your daily life, you’ll never be able to convey these things to another.

We may try to convince ourselves, our partners or our employers that we can give away all of these things to the people whom we serve, but too often we skip the first critical step. Until we possess it, we can’t give it away.

So what’s a caregiver to do? How do we make the transition from paying lip service to things like compassion and empathy and actually start practicing them? Here are a few ideas.

1. Refuse to engage in depreciating or hurtful humor at the patient’s expense

How many times have you heard someone say, “Of course, I’d never say this stuff in front of the patient or the family but, [Insert depreciating remark here].” Often, ridiculing the patient becomes such a habitual after-call ritual that we don’t even bother with the disclaimer.

I don’t want to sound like the fun police. Humor, even the sometimes dark gallows-humor that comes with EMS work, has its place. In fact, I believe it can be a necessary protective mechanism for the stress of our job.

But also recognize that there is a line. Humor that disrespects or ridicules the patient can erode our ability to empathize with and feel compassion for our patients.

2. Handle patients with care

Feelings follow actions. It’s natural to handle something valuable carefully. Practice handling your patient with compassion.

Lift with good technique. When your patients arrive at the pram (or stretcher) cover them appropriately, pad and package them with care and ask them what you can do to make them more comfortable.

This small gesture is appreciated by the patient and family members, and it’s also an unconscious signal that we are not simply clinicians, we are caregivers.

3. Care for yourself

The popular series Mad Men depicts the changing cultural mores of 1960s’ New York City. In the first season, a character goes to see her doctor who lights a cigarette and smokes it while he chastises her about her health.

Today, the behavior seems appalling, but we are every bit as foolish as the chain smoking doctor with our poor EMS diet and startling lack of physical fitness.

We can’t be expected to genuinely care for another’s health if we don’t genuinely care for our own. Put down the Twinkie and respect your own health, and caring for the health of others will follow.

4. Verbalize your intentions

Practice telling your patient and her family that you’re going to take good care of her. Simply verbalizing your intention to be caring leads you naturally into a more caring posture. Make it a habit to say things like, “We’ll take good care of you Mrs. Smith.”

When you’re leaving with a patient, take a moment to look at a family member and say, “Drive safe, we’ll take good care of your husband.”

Making the verbal commitment out loud to care for another person not only reinforces the idea in your own mind, it reminds everyone on scene of the goal to provide good care.

5. Recognize the value of the humans whom you serve

This is one of the big revelations that changed the way I think about my job. The value of the caregiver is intrinsically tied to the value of the patient.

If our patients have no value, then our care for them also has no value. If our patients have tremendous value, then our service to them also has tremendous value. You can’t pick up one side of the stick without picking up the other.

The value that you place on your patients, their health, their well-being and their comfort is also the value you place on your job. If you want to feel that what you do is significant and meaningful, begin by recognizing the significance and mean inherent to your patient’s life.

Life, all life, is significant and meaningful. Our patients have great value. Therefore our work has great value.

Giving begins with having. Caring for another isn’t a thoughtless action. It comes from a place inside. It begins with an intention.

It’s noble to want to be caring, compassionate, kind, thoughtful, calm and reassuring, but wanting isn’t enough. You’ll also need to cultivate within yourself everything that you want to give away, because you can’t give away what you don’t have.

Steve Whitehead, NREMT-P, is a firefighter/paramedic with the South Metro Fire Rescue Authority in Colorado. He is a primary instructor for South Metro’s EMT program and a lifelong student of emergency medicine. Steve is the host of the One for the Road video training series.