First responders saved my life, but I didn’t give them a second thought until now

Why do we take for granted the very people we task with saving our lives and who are suffering because of their jobs? Kevin Eastwood, director

I’m one of the countless people out there who owe their lives to first responders. In 2013, I had a cardiac arrest on a sidewalk in the middle of the day. A friend performed CPR until first, two firefighters stepped in, and then two paramedics arrived and took over. The paramedics gave me a round of epinephrine and then shocked me repeatedly with increasing voltage. After lying lifeless on the pavement for 10 minutes, I finally had a "palpable pulse.” They continued working until they got my heart rhythm back to normal. Then they transported me to the nearest emergency department that they knew would have the best cardiac care unit.

In the five years since that day, I have told the story of my near-death experience many times. When I recount this story, I regularly credit my dear friend Sonja for saving my life, with an “assist” to the incredible team of doctors and nurses at the hospital where I was taken. I also mention my amazing friends and family, whose love and support in my day-to-day life gave my mind and body the strength it needed to survive.

We take first responders for granted

Until recently, I must admit that I overlooked the second, third, fourth and fifth people involved in treating me: the first responders.

I should be more indebted to them than anyone for the work that they do, but until I made the documentary After the Sirens, I didn’t think about them when I told the story of the day my life was saved. I relegated them to bit players rather than the stars of that story. And I never thought of them as individuals who would have had their own experience of that event. I will never not think of them again.

Paramedics are suffering because of their jobs

In the course of making this film, I spoke to a lot of paramedics. It’s truly humbling to have a stranger summon their strength and courage to revisit a terrible event in their life and share their story with you. The facts are that approximately 26% of paramedics will get PTSD in the course of their careers and that they are five times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

I know that some paramedics are concerned that, by giving attention to this issue, the general public may think they’re all broken and unable to do their jobs. They don’t want a patient to be wondering if the healthcare professional who arrives to take care of them is secretly hanging on by a thread.

I fear that’s the stigma talking. Every single paramedic I met, despite their PTSD, demonstrated extraordinary strength and skill. None of them were ever bad paramedics. In fact, the very opposite; by all accounts, they were all great at what they did. Not all paramedics will get PTSD, but for the ones that do, it’s not a reflection of their ability to do the job — it can happen to the very best of them.

All first responders deserve our thanks

On the last day of filming, one of the subjects, Natalie Harris, a paramedic in Ontario, showed me a “Cardiac Save” certificate that paramedics get for every life they’ve successfully saved from cardiac arrest. I had no idea this was something that existed. After months of filming paramedics telling me about their worst calls, it was this unexpected and positive story that undid me.

EXTRA SCENE: Natalie Harris shows film director Kevin Eastwood, a cardiac save certificate which she received for saving a young man's life.

For the first time during the project, tears welled up in my eyes, realizing that the woman in front of me, while not technically one of the first responders who saved my life, had done the same for others and was therefore as deserving of my gratitude as any of them.