“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?” I get asked this question often when people find out what I do. They ask as if they actually want to know the answer, like they could stomach the truth, or like there has been one single event that tops them all, you know, one for the books; but reality is, they don’t want the truth, they simply couldn’t handle it. They’re looking for a gruesome story, some mangled nastiness that resembles a horror movie full of blood and guts, and while I have plenty of those images locked in my brain, that is not, by far, the worst thing I’ve ever seen.
The worst things I’ve seen aren’t single stories of disfigured human bodies, they are deeper and more real than anyone who doesn’t live this can imagine. They are memories built on countless events of reality. The realization that we are in fact temporary, that humans are capable of unimaginable things, and that horrible things happen to good and innocent people. Things that no one should see, yet we see them all, day after day, and somehow are expected to survive. A small child who has been intentionally dipped into boiling water, a tiny baby who has been flung against the wall like a wet noodle, a young mother, driving home from the grocery store, who lost her life to a drunk driver on a sunny Thursday afternoon, my first cardiac arrest, and the way his wife crumpled up into a ball on the floor at his bedside when we pronounced him dead. These are not just stories, they’re truths, and they are not what you share with your friends. They are what lives inside us, what drives us, and what changes who we are.
The funny thing is some people think my job is “cool” but they have no idea what I really do. I have this vivid memory of walking into one of our ED rooms a few years ago. In the bed was a woman who I had known since I was a child. My memory of her was contagiously happy, smiling, and full of life. One of those people whose presence is just gratifying. She isn’t a day older than my mother, she has children who are young adults, starting their lives and families. She should be baking cookies, buying baby clothes, and building dreams of her life yet to come; but she’s not. She is dying. Cancer had eaten her alive, literally, and she could no longer walk herself to the bathroom or tie her own shoes. I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to cry, to scream to the sky that life’s not fair, WHY would something like this happen to her; but I couldn’t. That’s not my job. My job is to be strong when everyone else is falling apart. To laugh in the face of death as it swallows us whole. It’s not fair, in fact it’s horrifying, and sometimes it takes every bit of strength you have just to keep standing; but you do. Is this some bloody story that makes me a hero, no, in fact it’s quite the opposite. It’s the harsh reminder that I am, in fact, a human, and just as fragile as I like to pretend I’m not. It’s not cool. It’s humbling.
The truth of what we do is far from the glamour of Greys Anatomy and Scrubs. It’s harsh and often times far to real for anyone to imagine. The things that we see and the people that we touch are forever with us. Each day, each patient, chipping away or building up the wholeness of who we are. If it weren’t for the people we work with we would never survive. We all would have given up long ago. These are the only people who understand that lump in your throat and that pit in your stomach. The only ones who get it, who know what it feels like to save a life, to hold the hand of a dying man, to laugh at something normal people would find horribly inappropriate, and to cradle a critically injured baby, all in the same day. The elite group of people who have had the privilege of being called every curse word in existence and then been professed undying love, in the same conversation. The ones who have amazing stories full of human strength and wisdom, to cover the stories that our hearts won’t let us tell. The ones I pump on chests with, start IV’s with, medicate with, triage with, round with, laugh with, cry with, and build my life with. The ones who speak my language and understand who I am. The most incredible people I know, and the only ones who know that the worst things we see, are really not things at all.
Photo credit: Whitney Dopler, Paramedic