One time a few years ago, me and a friend didn’t eat any sugar, grains, sweetener, or dairy to speak of for about a year and a half. I felt the best I’ve ever felt, stress was easier to handle, and I could do more with less than any other time in my life. I was at Crossfit multiple times a week, and even became a Crossfit level one instructor. Over time, life happened and I unfortunately weight about 80 lbs more than then, and I’m really tired lately. I’m pretty distant from friends, and my old facebook page taunts me even now, as I write this: “You haven’t posted in 399 days.” I’ve been to crossfit about 6 times in the last two years.
Around 2012, I went through a very public failure, as well as some of the most heartbreaking series of events I’ve ever experienced. Somewhere in there I let go, decided I would numb myself from some of the experiences in life and just hang on. In a lot more than just my own health, I’ve taken a back seat, rather than preparing for the challenges life may bring, I’ve been buckled in and hoping they would be over shortly.
Even before all of this, I have always loved emergency services from the moment we met. I love taking care of people. I love emergencies, I love bringing calm to chaos. It’s a delicate art which took years to develop, and it’s been my favorite part of life for many years now. Recently, I have been considering what it would be like if I were to never step foot on another emergency scene, and I came to a heart breaking realization: I let a lot of my favorite parts of me fall away slowly, through numbing myself from calls, my own heartbreaking experiences, working too much overtime, letting close friendships get a little less close, not paying attention to my health, and a myriad of other things.
Everyone always asks me, “What’s the worst thing you’ve seen?” I’ve seen death, from the smallest babies to the oldest and most natural deaths, I’ve watched countless people take their last breaths, and it’s not that. That’s almost universally peaceful, actually. Death happens to everyone, it’s the destination we all share, and I can see beauty and peace in that, even through the pain. Some might say that seeing someone frantically doing CPR on an obviously dead loved one is the worst thing a paramedic might see, but I don’t think that is it either. That’s gut wrenching, but it’s such a demonstration of love and hope, that someone so wants the person they love to be alive again. I can see so much beauty in that. Some of the hardest calls I’ve ever been on were the ones that took an all-out effort, sometimes over a long transport time, with lots of thought, multiple medications, intubations, with the patient stabilizing and destabilizing again and again, and then ultimately passing before we make it to the hospital, or in the hospital prior to recovering. Those calls are hard on you, you wonder what you could have done differently when life hangs in the balance, and have to accept that ultimately, despite an all-out and maximum effort, we sometimes cannot help. Those calls are really tough, and I’ve seen more than a few paramedics leave EMS after one of those. But for me, they aren’t the worst. The people I’ve talked to who were dying, were almost universally okay with it. As Steve Jobs said in his 2005 Stanford Commencement address: “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
The worst calls I’ve ever seen aren’t the ones where people physically die. The hardest calls for me are the ones where a friendless old man hasn’t talked to his daughter in 30 years and cries because he just wishes he could hear her voice. A cocaine addict that can barely find the words to explain how much he hates himself that he used again tonight, explains that it’s been 5 years, and apologizes a hundred times in the 8 minute trip to the ER. The beautiful girl who has scars all over her body, and most recently has used a steak knife to cut away most of her forearm, exposing tendons and bone, who denies any pain, and explains that she just wants to die so she doesn’t make her family sad anymore. It’s the wife, who beaten and bleeding, sits in your ambulance and explains that he didn’t mean it when he hit her, please don’t arrest him, he would never do this, I can’t live without him. It’s the homeless man who calls because he’s anxious, hungry, and doesn’t have anyone to talk to. It’s the expecting mother who cried the whole way to the ER while she was bleeding because her husband wouldn’t love her if she miscarried. It’s the many widows who live alone and call 911 because they don’t feel well, only to feel much better after just talking with you. Human despair is the worst thing I’ve seen, and it’s everywhere. The feelings of hopelessness, of life not being worth living, of intense sorrow or regret are the worst things I’ve ever seen in my ambulance. We don’t have any medicine or procedures for these calls and while we can listen and be compassionate, we can only do that until we get to the hospital, and we give them over to a busy ER, hoping that a system can somehow show them they are worth keeping. We get only so many minutes one on one with these people in the depths of despair, and then we may never see them again, maybe because they get better, or maybe because they really couldn’t take it anymore. If you want to know a heavy burden, spend 6 or 8, maybe 30 minutes with a broken hearted person who doesn’t want to go on living, and hope that you listened enough, that you didn’t say the wrong thing, or that you gave them what they needed to keep going. Those kind of calls are the worst things I’ve ever seen. Those are the ones that are hardest to find beauty in for me.
I guess I wrote all that to say, I’d be fine never stepping foot on an emergency scene again. Whether I’ll go back to working in emergency services, only time will tell. But I am committed to finding out everything I can about despair, what causes it, where it exists most commonly and why, and what we can do to end it. What I know from my own life is that the times I felt the furthest away from despair were when I was eating well, and in close community; and the times I felt the most despair were when I was withdrawn from relationships, not eating too well, and when I was taking a back seat, just letting life happen. Pain is inevitable, but despair is something different. I think being fully engaged in life is essential to avoiding despair. I don’t have too much despair, I’m all in all a pretty lucky guy. But I noticed when I was thinking about all of this, that I haven’t been fully engaged in my own life, and I’m disappointed in myself for that. I’m personally going to get some of my favorite parts of me back, starting with eating low carb, high fat whole foods for 30 days and becoming a regular part of CrossFit Johns Island. If you’re a paramedic, firefighter, police officer, or actually any person, don’t disengage from life. Do what you love. Find people who love you. Love the people around you. You never know what they may be going through. Don’t give up. You’re so worth it.