I'm a paramedic – I'm not supposed to feel
A paramedic takes on the gut-wrenching task of informing the family of a patient's death
By Dani Freed, EMS1 Contributor
I arrived on scene as the first transporting paramedic. It was the middle of the night. We located the scene and parked our ambulance. As I approached the car, I was led to the driver’s side of a demolished what-appeared-to-be a car at one point.
My eyes go straight to the driver’s seat, which is no longer part of the car, but now hanging and resting on the street as if a giant ripped it from the car and placed it next to where it's supposed to be. I notice the seatbelt still buckled, then the lifeless body staring at me with those all-too-familiar dead eyes. "Oh God he's young, that sucks."
Keep in mind, I'm in my paramedic brain now. The one that doesn't think, it just knows what needs to be done. I don't feel, just see. I reach down to check for any chance of life, even though I already know. I know, yet I don't feel.
I lift this kid’s chin up and find a hole where his brain is visible in the back of his skull. I look down to the normally black asphalt and see the copious amount of blood that makes it now red. I smell copper. I smell, but I don't feel. I place my fingers on his neck to check for a pulse. I still don't feel, anything. I look at the fire medic and shake my head. I move on to the next patient. I walk to him, but don't feel.
I approach a white helmet chief. He informs me this patient is the passenger of the same car. This patient is the DOA’s brother and has yet to be informed. I copied the situation and took over care. I copied, yet I didn't feel. I made eye contact, changed my demeanor from strong, in-charge medic, to empathetic, concerned, now his paramedic. I change, but I don't feel.
I perform my rapid trauma assessment to rule out any life threats, there are none. He's upset, anxious, worried. He keeps looking to the car, asking the status of his brother. I dance around the question. I dance, but I don't feel. I assist him to my gurney and continue to ask him questions – questions about what hurts, his medical history, his allergies and his medications. I question, yet I don't feel.
I have the fire medic do the call in so he won't hear me say, "death in the same compartment." He tells me he was knocked out, tells me the last thing he remembers was a loud crash sound, tells me he saw his brothers face. He grabs for my hand, I hold him. I embrace, but I don't feel.
I start my IVs, walk him through what will happen when we get to the ED. He asks if his brother will be taken to the same hospital. I tell him no. I tell him no, but I don't feel.
We arrive, I give my report to the trauma team. I do my paperwork. I input my vital signs and treatment. I write my narrative, yet I still don't feel.
An officer arrives with father of the two boys. I introduce myself to them, take the father to his son. The officer states, "I'm not telling them. My sergeant can do it." I inform staff that they don't know. They don't know about the dead son/brother that I had to leave, that I couldn't help. Multiple nurses say, "I'm not telling them, someone else can do that." I feel annoyed. The sergeant tells the captain he can do it. The captain says he will wait for the chaplain to come to inform.
I walk into the room with the father and son. My patient reaches for my hand again and asks about his brother. I hold his hand and take a seat on a stool next to his bed. I sit, but don't feel.
A very rude staff member enters the room asking who the father was, if I brought in the patient. I answer. Loud and snippy she asks, "well then where is the other brother?" Ok now I feel. I feel anger, I feel betrayal for my patient, I feel no one wanted to do their job. I feel my blood start to boil and I know I have to handle what nobody else wants to do.
I speak in a soft compassionate voice. I speak, but I no longer feel. I explain how he died, how it was instantly and there was no pain. How he didn't pass alone because he had his little brother with him. I hear the cries, the self-blame, the hurt. I see the pain, yet I don't feel.
My pager goes off, another call to run. I ask if I can get them anything, I ask if I can call anyone for them. I ask, but I don't feel. I walk to my ambulance, I back up my partner, I climb into the rig and start mapping him to our next call. I give directions, but still, I don't feel.
I’m a paramedic, and we're not supposed to feel.
About the author
Dani Freed is a paramedic in Riverside, Calif., who has been writing a log of her EMS calls for 15 years.
[After responding to a traumatic call, it is normal and part of the coping process to exhibit symptoms of stress. We are best able to recognize the signs of stress in ourselves and our coworkers that are not resolving in time. Learn more about the signs of stress and how to cope with a traumatic experience. Read: Self-care tips to recover from a traumatic EMS incident]
This article was originally posted Nov. 15, 2017. It has been updated.