Life As A Paramedic: PTSD


I was a 19-year old paramedic student the first time I handled a dead body.  Four years later I would almost die for the first of at least 3 times.  Me and the Grim Reaper are close buds.

Awkwardly enough, the dead body was a lady we had brought into emerg in the ambulance earlier in the day, a senior whose blood volume was seeping into her GI tract like a relentless tide.  My preceptor (the paramedic I was learning under) saw a pretty, young nurse struggling to move the body onto the gurney that would take it to the morgue, and he told me afterwards that he suggested I help her because he wanted to see how I'd react to being alone in a room with a pretty nurse and a dead body.  The main thing I remember is that the lady's head hit the gurney with a thump when we moved her and I felt bad for a second because I wasn't used to handling non-living people.

I've had Crohn's disease for pretty much my whole life, but it nearly killed me when I was 23 years old.  After many months of severe illness, then an emergency surgery when my bowel started to perforate that resulted in the removal of a mass of inflamed intestine the size of a 5-pin bowling ball, and then post-surgical complications that resulted in a 2-week hospital stay, my 6-foot tall body weighed a mere 108lbs.  I still cannot fathom my body being 72lbs lighter than it currently is.  My heart may still be beating today, but a part of me definitely died after all that.

The number of dead people I interacted with during my 16-year run as a paramedic easily numbers into 3 figures.  I appreciated dead people, 'cause they didn't puke on me or curse at me or take a swing at me while I was attempting to help them.  The ones that really got to me, though, were the babies and the kids.  It would be them that would ultimately set off the PTSD that had been brewing ever since my abusive childhood.

The abuse of children is one of those things that truly is a hidden epidemic.  That kind of trauma, occurring when a person's brain is in its key formative period, prevents the brain from developing properly in very specific ways.  My X/Y-chromosome donor (AKA my "father") damaged my brain and laid the groundwork for my future PTSD.  He was abused as a child too, but the difference between him and me is that I broke the cycle of abuse.  I kicked him out of my life about a decade ago; he's dead to me now.  Life is way too short to keep toxic people around (trust me).

The second time I almost died I was on vacation at the age of 32, trying to get away from the horrors of my work for a little while in the Bahamas.  I very nearly drowned because I didn't know what a riptide was.  Now I do.  (They taste very salty.)

The first non-elderly dead person I dealt with as a paramedic was an 18-year old who drowned in a lake.  His friends said he was just swimming along behind them, and then they turned around and he wasn't there.  They dove for a while and found him and dragged him out onto the shore.  By the time we reached his remote location he had been down for 45 minutes and I made the decision to not perform any resuscitative efforts.  20 years later the "what if" questions still haunt me: What if the cold water had kept some life in his brain and heart?  What if he could have been brought back?  What if we had at least tried?  My head is full of ghosts asking "what if".

I imagine there's a lot of overlap in the Venn diagram of people who have experienced significant early-life trauma and 41-year old men sporting purple mohawks and black nail polish.

I imagine there's a lot of overlap in the Venn diagram of people who have experienced significant early-life trauma and 41-year old men sporting purple mohawks and black nail polish.

I had every ounce of self-confidence beat out of me by the X/Y donor and by my classmates, but when I became a paramedic, I discovered myself for the first time.  The fact that I could walk into the craziest situations (such as being one of the first ambulance crews on scene when Air France Flight 358 crashed in 2005) and bring some measure of calm and control, or bring an actual dead person back to life, or prevent a guy from bleeding to death who had taken his arm off almost up to the shoulder in a meat grinder at an Asian food market, or bring babies into the world (on a livingroom sofa and a kitchen floor and a bedroom floor), or use my hands to hold a shooting victim's chest open in the trauma centre so that the physician could manually massage his heart, or just be next to someone while they breathed their last breath - whether I could be with someone at the start of their life or at the end of their life or during any crisis in between, all these gave me a supreme confidence in myself and my own abilities.  But ultimately, by the age of 36, I would be on long-term disability and the family I was no longer supporting would be drowning in a riptide of debt and my self-esteem would be gone again as I sat at home and felt like a worthless pile of shit.  Well, worse than worthless: a burden.

Great suffering strips away everything and forces a proud person to learn humility.  In humility I ask you: How can I support you?  If you need someone to talk to, or if you have any questions for me, look me up on Facebook at "Josh Yaks" and leave a message.  (If you see a cartoon yak and a guy with a purple mohawk, you know you're in the right place.)  Disability takes away freedom and teaches a fiercely independent person how to ask for help.  In humility I ask you: If you have donated to https://www.patreon.com/sickboy and have a few dollars left over, would you consider helping me out on GoFundMe.com, where you can find me as Medic Josh (https://www.gofundme.com/paramedic-with-crohns-and-ptsd)?  Life can be impossibly hard; let's help each other out.

I was 38 when I almost died the third time.  I had been sick for years with the Crohn's again, I was terrified of the inevitability of a second major surgery, I was at the end of my rope, and I didn't know what to do.  One night I took some pain pills, some sleeping pills, some Ativan pills, washed it all down with vodka, and took some Gravol so that I wouldn't throw it all up.  I figured I would finally get a good night's sleep or I would die; I didn't much care which it was.  In an incredibly ironic twist of fate, being a drug addict saved my life that night since my body had a very high tolerance for opiates.

Addiction and suicide are the two things that I least like to talk about, especially in a public format, which probably means that they're the two things I most need to talk about.  Tragically, those are both things that go hand-in-hand with PTSD: both of them kill the pain, one temporarily and one permanently.  Another epidemic that's increasingly coming to light is the issue of paramedic suicide.  I've seen stats that place the rate of paramedic PTSD at 26%, and some of those medics are killing themselves.  We can save the lives of others, but we cannot save our own.  So it goes.

Freshly out of surgery #2 in 2015, with an abdomen still bloated with surgical gas.

Freshly out of surgery #2 in 2015, with an abdomen still bloated with surgical gas.

Being an addict might have saved my life once, but it also lead to the worst experience of my life.  I was 39 when I had my second bowel resection surgery, and having an incredibly high tolerance for opiates meant that the painkillers I was receiving at the hospital during my post-surgical recovery were doing next to nothing.  You can't even begin to imagine the magnitude of pain when your abdomen has been cut open and then stapled back together and the hospital staff are insisting that you get out of bed the very same day to get your system moving and functioning and you have nothing that helps with the pain.  I had feared another surgery after the horrors of the first, and had prepared myself by purchasing a new book series and downloading some games from Steam onto my laptop and making sure I had some fun games on my phone, too, but it all ended up being so much worse than I could have even imagined.  I was in such excruciating agony that I couldn't even read, and could only lay there in my hospital bed for a whole week, staring at the clock on the ocean-green wall opposite my bed and think, "Just get through one more minute... just get through one more minute..." as endless waves of pain washed over me.  It's still almost too much to even think about.  Whatever part of me had survived the first surgery died after the second.  I am a walking corpse, a zombie perhaps (though I probably couldn't eat your brain 'cause it would be bad for my Crohn's).

There were other times that I don't count as near-death experiences, such as when my parachute didn't open properly the very first time I went skydiving (on a static line, not tandem), or the time I landed directly on top of my head after going off a jump on my snowboard, or at the scene of a triple shooting at a hip-hop party when I tried to leave a guy who had been shot in the leg because another guy had been found pulseless with a gunshot wound to the chest and this guy's friends wouldn't let me leave and were starting to get very hostile with me when I tried, or... okay, leaving it at three was probably a good idea.

And meanwhile, my old pal the Grim Reaper keeps bugging me daily, wondering when I'm actually going to stay for an extended visit, and suggesting that perhaps we could hit the beach?

Still keeping the PTSD at bay, somewhere around a decade ago.

Still keeping the PTSD at bay, somewhere around a decade ago.

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