Beyond the sirens: Inside the life of a paramedic

Ironically, the thing that attracted them both to the profession — the thrill of the unexpected — is also the thing that hangs over their heads, gnaws away at them. And how could it not?

'Traumatic death is horrible but now I've been on both sides of it,' says paramedic

Paramedics are drawn to ambulance lights like moths to a flame, yet they know the thing that brings life can also burn them.

For Chris Carson, the call he was drawn to, the one that still smolders inside him, came on June 15, 2012.

That's when a man shot three of his co-workers to death at the university's HUB Mall. Carson was one of the first on the scene.

His partner, the person he shares an office-on-wheels with, Allison Tatham, also has a specific kind of call she dreads, despite her overwhelming desire to help.

A year ago her father was killed by a drunk driver in Regina. It was a Sunday morning, he was stopped at a red light on his way to get the car washed. A drunk driver slammed into his car, the impact killed him instantly.

Such calls are part of the job for paramedics, a job both Carson and Tatham love, and choose to do.

What they can't choose is when, and what.

Ironically, the thing that attracted them both to the profession — the thrill of the unexpected — is also the thing that hangs over their heads, gnaws away at them.

And how could it not?

They've seen death, they've breathed life into the dying, and like every paramedic, Tatham said, they've felt post-traumatic stress.

'I'm not the same person'

"I'd say, over the course of nine years, I'm not the same person I was before I got into this,"  Carson said between calls at the Meadows ambulance station on Edmonton's south side.

Back then, after the HUB Mall shooting, he took six months off. Unlike colleagues before him, he didn't blame it on a back injury.

"Traumatic death is horrible, but now I've been on both sides of it," said Tatham, just a day after watching as the man who killed her father was sentenced to nine years in prison.

"I've been a life saver as well as the person who has had the life taken away," she said.

Paramedics dance that precarious line between death and life, and unlike those who can drive by crash scenes and look away, they have to jump in and help.

'The pager goes off and you can go anywhere'

Tatham was never able to look away.

As a child she was hooked on Rescue 911, and the voice of William Shatner. After flirting with the idea of becoming a doctor, she first settled on a career as a massage therapist, and then as a paramedic.

Paramedic Allison Tatham assesses a 41-year-old woman who is having difficulty breathing. She was rushed to the hospital shortly after this picture was taken. (Trisha Estabrooks/CBC)
Carson, on the other hand, said he "just fell into it."

But he fell hard, and loved the pace, loved how each day was different.

"The pager goes off and you can go anywhere."

On a recent morning, ​the pager went off, the computer read: "28-year old woman, suicide attempt on the city's southside."

The ambulance roared out of the station, hot-response style, lights and sirens on.

Dead? Alive? No idea.

Tatham's eyes flicked side to side, checking traffic before Carson blasted through a stop light.

While they drove, the two talked about restaurants they'd recently eaten at, chatting like old friends, trusted confidantes, not colleagues who have only worked together for six months.

"You do spend more time with your partner than your significant other," said Tatham. "I sit in a truck with Chris for 48 hours a week."

It shows. A plug-in blue cooler sits between them, holding snacks for days when there's with no time to eat.

"That's why it's good to pee when you can," Tatham said.

They pulled up outside the condo. The woman who tried to kill herself had already chosen to ride with police to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.

Stand down, drive away.

Paramedics  respond, on average, to one or two suicide calls during every four-day rotation.

The drawers of the job

The back of the ambulance has dozens of compartments, neatly organized. A drawer for moldable splints, for 1,000-millilitre saline solution, for pressure infusers.

Missing, however, was a compartment for emotion — the place to neatly tuck away the death of a child, roll up the stretchy what-ifs after a crash, much as they would a gauzy bandage.  With no place to store emotions on board, there are two ways to deal with them: lock them up, or talk them out.

"Part of the job is traumatic injuries and accidents," said Carson.

He paused then mentioned the HUB Mall shooting.

"Probably up until that event, that was always something cool I'd always wanted to go and see. But after seeing that type of event, it's just one of those things I don't have any interest of attending anymore in the future."

His support network is strong. The paramedics Carson knows aren't afraid to talk about what happened to their colleague, who committed suicide on the job about four months ago.

For Tatham, her fear of having to respond to a drunk driving crash remains.

"You go to a really horrible call and you do need to talk about it afterwards," says paramedic Allison Tatham. (Trisha Estabrooks/CBC)
A couple of weeks ago, she and Carson pulled up on a crash where the airbags were deployed, the front end of the car smashed.

"I didn't see him moving," she recalled.

"Who knows what's behind that airbag. I can't see him. I don't know what's going on … so, for a second, you put whatever is in your head out of your head, make sure that guy is OK, and then you move on."

He was and they did.

The 10 percent

That adage that time heals all wounds must seem trite to paramedics.

Seconds count. That's why it's surprising that most clocks inside ambulances don't display the proper time of day. Years of jarring bumps has taken its toll on the clocks, which are only used to measure intervals, for example, the seconds between breaths.

A full 90 percent of calls are "non-emergent," meaning no one is dying.

It's the 10 percent that keeps their blood racing. 

Paramedic Chris Carson delivers a patient to the hospital. "You kind of just have to put your own personal feelings almost in your pocket for the time that you're on the call," he says. (Trisha Estabrooks/CBC)
Another stop. A man on the front stoop clutched a cellphone in one shaking hand, a lit cigarette in the other.

Carson and Tatham rushed into the home, lugging equipment up the stairs to a bedroom.

A tiny woman sat on the edge of a mattress on the floor. Her head hung low, her face pale.

Tatham plastered stickers attached to wires, then hooked her to a portable box that measured oxygen supply. As she worked, she talked - quiet, calm, gentle, her head touching the woman's ball cap as she leaned in.

The decision was made quickly to rush the woman to hospital. Firefighters helped lift her onto a stretcher and into the back of the ambulance. Sweat beads collected on Carson's forehead.

"Your heart looks pretty good. It's all lungs today," said Tatham, who hovered over the patient and listened as she struggled to talk between breaths.

Moments later, the ambulance rushed to the Grey Nuns Hospital, where Carson had to park outside the bay. There were seven ambulances lined up, jockeying for space and for medical attention for their patients. Paramedics must stay with their patients until a medical team takes over - and that can sometimes take hours.

The woman was wheeled into the hospital hallway and moments later into a room with a curtain.

“You get to crash a lot of Halloween and Christmas parties - four on, four off, doesn't matter what day of the week it is,” says paramedic Chris Carson. (Trisha Estabrooks/CBC)
The paramedic stepped back, overshadowed by the medical team that descended on the patient, a faded brown curtain pulled curtly around the bed. She was their patient now.

Before the shift ended, the two responded to a miscarriage, and a drunk downtown

Such calls ultimately fade into the background, but are logged internally and count toward what can't be calculated, measured, or tested — experience.

Experience they carry along that line between life and death daily, lugging their own baggage as they go.

It's how they deal with that baggage — the baby who died of heart failure, the well-loved man killed by a drunk driver, the aftermath of a bloody shootout on a university campus — that will test and challenge who they are as paramedics, and as people.


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