Vision by Ryan O’Meara

Vision

By: Ryan O’Meara, Advanced Care Paramedic

Paramedicine is an amazing profession, and is always changing. You can have incredibly rewarding experiences that leave a lasting sense of positive energy one minute, only to end up humbled and emotionally trashed the next. I sit here writing this having just had one of the latter.

I’ve just watched the life drain unexpectedly out of a patient’s face knowing that things would never be the same for them ever again. And I was the only one present to observe it. Not a loving partner, adoring children, caring parents, or their cherished friend, only me… a stranger, in a strange environment, who’s trying to do what I can to help but I’m failing. All I can do is prop them up on the stretcher and try to keep their airway clear of the vomit recently expelled.

I’ve just seen a great deal of care, concern, and hard work, by a professional health care team to bring life back into that face. Some life, any life, would be considered a victory. But instead, despite the marvels of modern medical science, there was no life to return.

I’ve just spied the looks on the faces of that caring team as news of the defeat is delivered and processed. It’s hard to accept the result. We train and prepare with victory always in mind. Optimistically we assume every situation will end in victory, otherwise the weight of constantly expecting defeat would crush us. Someone has just become overwhelmed with emotion at the gravity of the proclamation and can no longer restrain their tears.

I’ve just witnessed the sadness that follows when the family is present in the room. There’s a look on the faces of family when they first enter the room. Before laying eyes on their loved one their faces hold an expression of unwanted trepidation that will shortly shatter into raw emotion. As they visit, weep, and console one another, their grief amplifies the weight of failure hanging about the room. This is when I must leave, for I fear if I am here any longer that weight might crush me.

I’ve just looked back on the events of the previous hours and seek to engage my partner ensuring there is nothing we missed, nothing we overlooked, nothing in which we find fault… nothing. Nothing is precisely what I now feel we accomplished. We should have been able to do something. All of our training, all of our experience, all of our gear, medication, and equipment, amounted to nothing. At least that is what I believe after we leave the hospital. Time passes and thankfully I’ve now seen through the fog of emotion and realize that we did accomplish something after all. We were there in those first moments of sheer panic, lending reassurance. We gave them the best possible chance. We helped to give the family time to gather together and wish their loved one swift travel to the next life. We did make a difference, even if we can’t see it at the time.

Scenes like this will play out over and over again in our Paramedic careers. They have the potential to break us, but also the potential to help us grow and become better. If we dwell only on the dark we can get lost in it. It can consume us if we allow. Try not to let yourself become mired in the dark. Seek out people who care and are willing to help and listen. Take the time to TALK. TALK to your partner. TALK to someone on the peer support list. TALK to family. TALK to a counselor. TALK to a support group. IT DOESN’T MATTER WHO YOU TALK TO, JUST TALK! Speak up and you’ll soon realize this is something you don’t have to go through alone.

Optimism and Curiosity: Buffers for PTSD and Burnout by Dr. Manuela Joannou

Life is difficult. This is one notion that not many would refute. We are all faced with responsibilities, challenges, stressful situations and difficult decisions to make. Our life story lines include love and loss, triumph and defeat, success and failures. We are surrounded by examples of loyalty  and betrayal, valour and cowardice, scrupulousness and dishonesty. We deal with difficulties in our personal lives, our professional lives, our physical health and our emotional wellbeing. How do we stay centred, productive and sane? How do we move forward in our lives making meaningful contributions and setting good examples for our children and others who look to us for care and direction?

It is our perceptions and our attitudes that will make us or break us.

Living a life filled with opportunities and challenges is nothing new; it is the essence of the human condition. The props and the costumes may be different, but the themes, the archetypal characters and the plots in which we find our protagonist selves are few in number.  These plots have played themselves out over and over again in the history of mankind.

When we are slapped with another unwanted assignment or a disappointing piece of news, it is easy to slide into a state of resentment. Why should I be the one who has to do this? Why are the kids so annoying and messy? Why are there always more bills than money to pay them?

The truth is that conditions and circumstances, which we judge as good or bad, will always appear. We have little control over most of them. What we can control, however, is how we choose to perceive them. This will determine how  we approach our life’s journey in its entirety.

Victor Frankl, in his landmark book “Man’s Search for Meaning” wrote “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms-to choose one’s attitude in any set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”.

Psychologist  Martin Seligman has spent his career studying positive psychology: what particular mental attitudes lead to enhanced psychological and emotional wellbeing. He has identified optimism as being the one trait that can enhance the experience of life. He believes that everyone can learn optimism. Learned optimism is the opposite and antidote to learned helplessness.

It appears that some people tend to be naturally optimistic while pessimism is a strong tendency in others. Both stances are associated with energies that come with them. Optimists can have seemingly boundless energy because they naturally expect that all their undertakings will have positive outcomes. Pessimists, on the other hand, may be reluctant to invest their energy into projects as their belief is that no good will come of their efforts, or what good results they initially experience will eventually be sabotaged ( usually by the stupid people that they feel make up the world).

Disappointments in the optimist’s world are  seen simply as feedback, giving the opportunity to start again, with more knowledge and wisdom. Disappointments in the pessimist’ s world are yet another reinforcing validation of their view that life sucks.

The optimist will view challenges and difficulties as a chance to grow. They will attach hope of goodness to even the most dire situations. They will look for strategies for damage control, the opportunity to alleviate suffering, and find meaning and purpose in their willingness to serve in natural disasters. Even when death is inevitable, the optimist shifts to a hope for a serene passing with contentment and closure. Pessimists will crumble much faster in the face of adversity. They will lose hope and resent the energy they expended that led to disappointments or disaster. This is of course an exaggeration, but we can all move further toward the optimist’s side of the scale and find more satisfaction in life.

The one quality that is closely related to optimism that is not as well known or studied is curiosity. If one is optimistic, he or she brings a natural curiosity to new circumstances, believing that all will unfold as it should and result in happy endings. The pessimist, on the other hand, will tend to slap negative judgment on all new happenings and be less likely to engage.

The optimist will be curious about the implications of meeting new people and will contemplate the forces that have made them cross paths with new souls. The pessimist will assume that new assignments with new people are an unwelcome chore and will result in further frustration.

It is little wonder that optimism is the one trait that is identified as the most important to predict success, whether in business or in life in general.

Seth Godin, American author and entrepreneur writes “optimism is the most important human trait because it allows us to evolve our ideas, to improve our situation, and to hope for a better tomorrow”.

When it comes to addressing PTSD in first responders or compassion fatigue and burnout in helping professionals, optimism and curiosity are the best buffers. Optimism toward humanity and the human spirit allows one to believe that the ills of society, and the plight of its individual members can improve. It allows one to find abundant energy to keep funnelling into one’s work at a one on one, group, or societal level.

Optimism that “you did not go through all this for nothing”, and that there is wisdom, meaning, and power to be gained from bouncing back from difficult situations keeps one’s spirit alive and fighting. Curiosity allows us to seek the lessons that are to be learned from our difficulties.  It leads to a willingness to be shown the path to emotional and spiritual growth as a result of our struggles.

Difficult relationships and difficult situations abound. The curious optimist will understand that every relationship is an assignment. Each difficult  experience takes us into an unknown world where we should remain curious. It gives us opportunity to seek out  the elixir, that precious all powerful wisdom that we can  share in our known world to help and enlighten others.

Post Traumatic Growth

In most martial arts there exists a system of belts. Students begin as a white belt and progress thru a series of colors until they reach the level of black belt. The belts are a metaphor for the journey of life. We start out in life as a white belt. This represents who at our core that we truly are. Then life happens to us. Our parents expectations, our positive experiences, the traumas we endure. Our belts begin to get dirty and colored. As things happen to us we move away from our white belts and who we were born to be. With time our belts become brown and then eventually black. Most people in their lives reach their black belt in life in their 40’s. We have been thru some real adversity. People we loved have died. We’ve been deeply hurt by others. Life has not met the expectations we once had for it. We’ve spent much of our time on this planet with far too much concern for what others think of us. Most people remain the rest of their lives stuck in this black belt stage of our development. It can turn us cynical and leaves us in a place where we tend to reduce our expectations and dreams to match our unfulfilling reality.

However, what most people are unaware of is that in martial arts and in life the black belt is not the final color or stage. Weaved beneath the black in the belt is another white belt. A black belt who continues to train and push forward will eventually wear away the black threading and return to that which they had begun; their white belt. In life this is a metaphor for returning back to who we were born to be before life beat us up. It also means that when we feel that we are in our darkest spaces and in the furthest place from the light, that we are in fact the very closest to breaking thru to that which we yearn for in our soul. The return to our authentic self. The return to our white belt.

To progress from black belt to white is one that almost invariably requires something significant and traumatic to occur in our lives. We can all think of someone who underwent some tremendous hardship and who came out the other side “different”. They carry themselves rooted in a new purpose and with a strength and surety that they never exhibited before. It is as though these changes occurred over night. That was not the case.

There is a plant called the Chinese bamboo tree. When this seed is planted it requires daily watering and nurturing. It needs just the right amount of fertilizer and light. During the first year the plant does not even break thru the ground despite all of the time spent on it. During the second year the seed remains in the darkness. It is not until the fifth year that the Chinese bamboo tree finally breaks thru the soil. Now once it breaks thru it grows ninety feet in six weeks. You can literally sit and watch it grow.

Our growth in life is very much like this. Most people are existing as black belts and are close to breaking thru the ground like the Chinese bamboo tree. Close to immense growth that will take them out of the darkness and back to who they were born to be. But to allow this process to occur we must truly get out of our own way. We must embrace the struggles that come our way not resist them. Pain and struggle in life are mandatory. Suffering is optional. Suffering = Pain X Resistance. Suffering clouds our judgement and weakens our resolve. It deepens the black on our belts but brings us no closer to the belt underneath.

Pain alone can do the opposite in our lives. It can clarify our values and give us tremendous strength. It can be the force which starts to strip away the black threads that still cover the white belt beneath. Post traumatic growth occurs when a person decides that what happens to them does not have to create suffering. It is when they decide that although they are going thru hell that they are going to keep going. It is when a person becomes aware that although they may have been broken, that we always mend stronger in the broken places.

The sword of a mans soul is forged not in glory at the mountaintop, but rather in fear and struggle while clinging to the rock wall high above the void.

 

Sparking: staying connected after trauma

What will you see when you look back?

Some years ago I met an elderly woman who asked me that question. She had recently left her husband of 40 years. Her husband had abused her physically and mentally from the onset of their relationship. She described to me that the worst part of what he had done to her was the isolation he had placed her in. He hadn’t allowed her to have any friends and had also pulled her away from the once strong and important connections within her own family. He was the only person she had in her life and that sole relationship was based on fear and control. She was terrified of him and did whatever he wanted her too. Yet whatever she did was never good enough. She would always pay a price for her “mistakes” often in the form of a beating, whether it be a verbal or physical one. She lived alone and in fear. She had completely forgotten who she had been before being with him. Then he died of a massive heart attack 3 days after their 40th wedding anniversary.

She told me that the day after his funeral she made a decision about her life going forward. She was going to spend the rest of her days engaged in connection with others. No matter how short the time or seemly trivial the interaction, she was going to “spark”. She explained that she called connecting with another “sparking”. The checkout girl at Walmart, a stranger on the sidewalk, a friend she hadn’t talked to for years….anyone and everyone she encountered throughout her day she was going to attempt to make a connection with. She told me that it was something she did thru her eyes. That she would meet someones gaze and look hard into their eyes. That she would attempt a soul to soul conversation. That she would listen to understand not to reply. 

I asked her if she really believed that these little connections really made a difference in her life. She answered my question with hers; “When you come to the end of your time here on earth and look back…..what will you see when you look back?”

I paused not really understanding what she meant. Sensing my confusion she told me that when people reflect back on their lives that it is the relationships they had with others that they remember most. Not the careers they held, possessions they owned, or even places they had been. She said that a life lived in isolation was one of darkness. That all those little tiny sparks throughout each of her days matter. That when she looks back now those sparks have made it a life filled with light. 

When one is afflicted with PTSD one of the most devastating parts is the isolation. We feel sick so do not feel like being around others. Not being around others plunges us further into the depths of depression and anxiety. We feel alone and like no one understands us. This is the darkness, the lack of connection….no sparks….no light.

The power of peer support is in reestablishing these connections. These connections become life lines with other people who truly understand and can provide the empathy, not sympathy, those suffering truly hunger for. There is tremendous power in one human being reaching out to another and simply telling them they understand, they care, and they will sit with them in the darkness. It can be the difference between feeling understood rather than judged. The difference between feeling hope rather than despair. The very difference between life and death. 

The path out of the darkness is known. It is a path lit by the sparks of love. 

What will you see when you look back?