Article Author wishes to remain anonymous.
Anyone in EMS is aware of what burnout is. We have been conditioned throughout our careers that burnout is a possibility and that we need to watch out for it. Told that we may have these symptoms, to keep an eye on our co-workers. Even though we are aware of these symptoms, what happens when you do actually feel burnout? This is my story of my career burnout, I hope my story will helps others avoid or even help with burnout.
I have been in EMS for 10 years. Fresh out of high school getting my Basic EMT, I thought I ruled the world. You know that feeling, getting your patch, chasing trauma, saving lives. Getting wrapped up in the euphoria of being in EMS, don’t lie you know the feeling. Even as you read these words you are chuckling at least slightly at your own starting attitude. I was fearless, I had heard of burnout in class, but of course I thought this could never happen to me. I love this job, I will never want to leave. Boy was I wrong, young dumb and crazy right.
My first call as an EMT was to a 2-week old baby left in a hot car, 103 F outside, 120 F inside. Young teen mom locked her baby and keys in the car. Everyone has locked their keys in their car right? I get that, call a locksmith. Lock your baby in the car, call 911. This girl chose to try and get the keys out herself, 10 mins go by, she calls mom. Mom chooses to come to the scene, 10 mins later, mom on scene trying to get keys out. 10 mins later, finally call 911. 30 mins after locking the baby in the car, finally EMS is in route, 2 min response, the scene was less than 4 blocks from our station. We got to the baby, she is hot and not crying like she should be. Lethargic, pale, respiratory distress. I am beyond angry at this point. Why wouldn’t you just call 911? Why did you wait? I had to ride with the baby’s teenage mom all the way to the hospital as I cared for her baby. The baby survived and is probably in the 3rd or 4th grade by now. What a way to start my career right? There was no talk after the call, nothing from my co-workers about what could have happened, how you are feeling. Nothing, like the call didn’t happen, back to the station.
Fast forward 2 years. Now I have some experience. I now have my Advanced EMT and working in a rural community for private EMS. We had a lot of traffic, drug and alcohol calls. Just what you would expect from a rural company. Nothing really crazy or abnormal. This company was located in the middle of oil country. Working several months having the normal running calls, all is well. Then the call that broke me the first time, an explosion at an oil tanker. Call comes over as a fire stand-by. Unoccupied oil tanker has caught fire and exploded. We are on scene for no longer than 2 minutes before the fire crew is running at us with what appeared to be a body. Unoccupied, incorrect. Occupied by one, male in his 20’s, burned past any type of recognition. Not able to maintain his own airway, running to get to the ER. He did not make it. My first fatality in my hands. I had patients die in the past, but not when they were in my care. Critical Incident Stress Management, we hear about this in class. All those involved sit for a meeting of what happened, allowing you to seek help and keep your mental health. These words were foreign to me, even after a call this intense, I still was not given the resources to handle what I was feeling. Instead I went back to the station, packed up my gear. I was already 8 hours over shift, now to drive the 4 hours home. The entire way I am stuck wondering what I did wrong, how could he have died? Of course I know now that I did nothing wrong, he was just injured past saving, but then I was lost. I did not return to the company, I never looked back. Here I was facing the largest incident of my EMS career to that point, and I feel like I am facing it on my own. I chose to quit, leave medicine in my past and try something else.
I worked in a clinic for several years. Normal 9 to 5, same stuff every day, a routine, something that we in EMS are not familiar with. I was happy with what I was doing, I even got married, life was looking good. I felt that EMS was in my past, I was going to go to school and get my nursing and be a clinic nurse. Then the bug bit me, I had a patient with an allergic reaction requiring advanced airway and full code treatment. The sirens were calling me back. It was not more than 4 months following this incident that I was back in the rig.
Here we go again, I managed to stay out for 5 years, back to working horrible hours, in a cramped box. I loved it, the rush was my addiction. I felt alive and like my soul had been sleeping for several years, I was back. That is when my life went to hell.
5 months working in private EMS, working in a downtown metropolitan city. You know the calls, drug overdose, alcohol intoxication, patient down for an unknown reason, and threats from patients. Lets look at that last one, threats from patients. Abuse of EMS is a real thing, I was being verbally and physically assaulted multiple times per shift, with nothing done about it. All part of the job right? Wrong, we should not have to face this, PD wouldn’t help, supervisors stating that these are the hazards that you will face. Informing is not helping. I could feel my mental health slowly chipping away, I sought help with therapy. Medication, therapy, these are what we expect will help when we are feeling this way.
7 months in, well now I am really gone. My mental health was destroyed. I did not care about certain demographics of patients, I was the crazy EMT. I was doing my best Nicholas Cage for several months. Then it happened, divorce, the last little bit of sanity I was holding on to, gone. I was showing up late to work, calling out sick, increase in moodiness, easily to jump to anger. I look at the symptoms now, it was clear that I was burning out, and I was alone. My partner hated me, my supervisors did not care, divorce papers coming out of my ears. I was on a downward spiral and drowning with no one there to help me. Then the call of cardiac arrest, 10 months old, my breath stopped. We get on scene and the infant was on hospice and needing transport to the hospital to die. We take the little one to the hospital, the entire time I am looking at this angel and thinking that it is unfair that those who have been given life choose to throw it away, yet this innocent child has to die. CISM should follow right? This has to qualify, wrong. Again, we do not talk about it, nothing. That’s it, I quit.
10 years of EMS this was my career, it was all I have known, and I was done. I quit the ambulance and left the field. I was hanging up my patch and never turning back. I was given the opportunity to be onsite medical for a small retirement community, I figured I will work there while I go to school for something else. Then my answer landed in my lap. I was offered to become an instructor, to train new EMT’s. This was my calling, to share my story, help the new EMT’s to not fall into the same spiral I had.
Burnout, it is real. It should be taken very seriously. I was depressed and feeling hopeless. I was only one statistic, I could have easily been one of the fallen. Our family of first responders that take their own lives. Do not avoid the symptoms, act on what you are feeling and seek care. Mental health needs to be taken care of just as much as our physical health. It is my belief that all EMS personnel see a therapist at least once a month, just to decompress. Please seek help if you are feeling the way that I did. You do not have to suffer, there are those that care. There are options and treatment available.
Please visit the Need Help Page for Mental Health information and resources.
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