Core memories: ‘It happens to all of us, and it’s normal’

Our core experiences in EMS, and how our family, friends and colleagues respond and support us, shapes us for years to come


Until now, chaplaincy in EMS has been the terra incognita, the unknown land on the chaplaincy map.

In his newly published book, “Because We Care: A Handbook for Chaplaincy in Emergency Medical Services,” Russell N. Myers draws on three decades of clinical chaplaincy practice, scholarship and original research, gives us the map, making the case for ambulance service chaplaincy – how to think about it and how to do it.

Our experiences early in our professional lives are formative for much of what comes later. Ask any seasoned dispatcher, EMT or paramedic about their firsts – first cardiac arrest, first pediatric call, first multiple casualty incident – and there’s a good chance you’ll hear a story.

The way we reflect on our own early experiences, and the response of peers, family and friends when they heard about it, shapes how we respond to those types of events for years to follow. These core memories are part of a larger set of core memories that we carry with us from childhood. They’re explored in the Pixar film “Inside Out.”

One of my core memories is from 30 years ago. During my chaplaincy residency at a level 1 trauma hospital, I responded to a call in which a six-year-old boy had been brought in. He and his friends were playing Peter Pan, jumping on the bed in a second-floor bedroom, pretending to fly. He flew across the room and hit the screen on the window; the screen popped out. A neighbor saw him fly out the window and land on the concrete patio.

"In trauma work, first you bury your parents, then your spouse, then your children, then your friends and then you bury yourself. Not literally, of course, but in the sense that we care for patients who remind us of someone we know and care about," Russell Myers writes. (Photo/Getty Images)

A large family group followed the ambulance to the hospital. After getting the family situated in the waiting room, I found a quiet spot where I could call home. My daughters were both preschoolers at the time. “Hello,” my wife answered the phone. “Hi,” I replied, “how is everyone doing this afternoon?” She got it. She understood. “We’re fine. What just happened at the hospital?” I told her we had admitted a young boy, I couldn’t give her any details, but I just needed to make sure everyone at home was all right.

As it turned out, the patient had no concussion, no bleeds, no breaks and no sprains. Apparently he did everything right, by instinct. He relaxed as he flew through the air, tucked his head and rolled. In some ways, though, it doesn’t matter what the outcome was. I would have cried anyway, just thinking about what could have happened. When I got home that afternoon, my children got an extra-long hug.

A colleague observed that in trauma work, first you bury your parents, then your spouse, then your children, then your friends and then you bury yourself. Not literally, of course, but in the sense that we care for patients who remind us of someone we know and care about, and sometimes it’s like looking in the mirror, when you realize that this could be me. It happens to all of us, and it’s normal.

Everyday actions

What are your core memories? How do they shape your work? Who was there when those things happened, and how has their response been a part of your core memory? Were you supported, scolded, ignored, encouraged?

To take it another step, how will your care of a patient, or your response to a coworker who just had a difficult day, become one of their core memories? We all have more power than we realize. Our everyday actions have a good chance of becoming part of someone’s life, and their view of the world, for years to come. It’s our obligation, and our privilege.

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