I live in a rural community.
To facilitate travel, the area I live in is criss-crossed with highways. They are just like highways you will find anywhere in the prairies. Long. Straight. Dotted with crosses on the side of the highway, signifying where someone somebody loved came to a tragic ending.
I never used to pay attention to the crosses. I knew that they represented someone who died, but didn’t give it much thought beyond that.
One of these crosses adorns one of the highways close to me, and unlike other crosses, this one fills my body with fear, adrenaline, and trauma. Passing the spot on the highway takes me back to another time in another life. In fact, post-EMS, I went out of my way to avoid this particular stretch of highway, because it holds the memories of one the most significant calls in my career.
It was late summer or early fall of 2011, and my partner and I were called to this particular, isolated, section of highway, responding to a pick-up versus big rig. It was a sunny day, not unlike my drive home yesterday.
I’d responded to fatalities before, but the destruction of the two vehicles was something that I had never witnessed before. The driver of the big rig was dead on arrival, yet surprisingly, the driver of the pick-up was still alive. We worked on him for over an hour, waiting for STARS to come in and whisk him to the trauma centre in Edmonton. Unfortunately, we lost him while the helicopter was still 10 minutes out.
I know we did everything humanly possible for our patient, and his trauma was just too severe.
We were cleared back into service and returned to quarters, ready for the next call.
I don’t remember any other calls in my career that left me so sad. So fatigued. So mentally exhausted.
Travelling that road, seeing that cross, takes me right back to that day, with crystal clear sharpness. I lasted in EMS just under another two years after that call, and by the time I left due to my mental health, I was spent, mentally and physically.
Driving home from Saskatchewan yesterday, I passed by this spot, and instead of driving on, I pulled over. I walked the scene. I took some pictures. I let the feelings, the pain, wash over me. I let myself feel the grief for this person I couldn’t save, despite the best efforts of me and my partner.
It was cathartic.
The call was ten years ago this summer. It’s haunted me for a long time. It still haunts me. I still see the scene, the destruction when I close my eyes. The pain is there, but so is something else. I think I’m starting to heal. I feel a little less guilt than I did about the loss.
The call was a lifetime ago, yet it helped shape my journey, bringing me to where I am now. I have a new life. I’m on a new journey, one that I would not be on if not for the experiences that shaped me.
I’ll never forget this call, but hopefully, in time, the memories will be less harsh and the nightmares less severe. I think I’m on my way to that point.
Back to the crosses.
I never used to think too much about what they represented. Now I see them, and think of the pain and suffering of families. I feel the exhaustion and frustration of the rescue crews.
EMS is a tough job. I wish I had lasted in it longer. The thing is, the brain is not equipped to deal with the trauma that is part of everyday life for EMS crews. If you are struggling, reach out. It’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to tap out, to say that the job has taken as much from you as you’ve been able to give.
And for those who are still doing the job, I wish you God speed, because you are doing great works. Look out for yourself, and your partners.