An Emergency Medical Services Perspective on Experiencing Personal Loss and Grief

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Tending to and witnessing the grief of others is part of the role we play as first responders. If we’re lucky in our careers, we’ll have the opportunity to learn from great mentors that teach compassion and how to be empathetic while providing exceptional care. After losing my mom this year, I have been giving thought to what happens to first responders when we experience profound loss and grief in our own lives? Does having a personal experience with grief make us better providers? How does this paradigm shift effect us?

My recent experience with loss has made me aware of my lack of wisdom when it comes to bereavement. Like many, I have experienced loss in the past. I have lost my dog as well as my best friend, and while painful and sad, these losses were no match for the heartache felt when I lost my mom. Grief doesn’t feel like you think it’s going to feel. Many are wildly inept at dealing with or expressing what they are feeling when challenged with grief. Some of us, especially those that haven’t experienced the loss of a loved one, have the misconception that their life will be back on track a week later. Grief doesn’t work that way.

 

During my mom’s illness, my family felt vulnerable due to our reliance on a healthcare system that could be hard to navigate. As a healthcare provider, being on the other side of the bedside was eye-opening. I found myself thinking about my own approach to patient care in the face of loss and tragedy and realized that being vulnerable with patients is essential. One evening, I arrived at the medical intensive care unit to see my mother’s nurse taking time to comb my mom’s hair. I stood in awe as I watched the nurse invest in my mom, making her laugh and smile while gently combing through her hair…what kindness. Another evening, medics responded to my mom’s 911 call and chose to stay on scene for almost an hour while I was stuck in traffic, making sure she was safe and had what she needed…that’s impact. Then there was the nurse who set me up in an ED room to sleep while my mom was in critical condition, and the nurse practitioner that pulled some strings and arranged for my mom’s beloved dog Tootsie to come see her one last time – my mom passed just eight hours later. Tootsie hasn’t looked for my mom at the house because thanks to a caring nurse practitioner she understands what’s happened to my mom…that’s what caring in healthcare is all about.

As I emerge from this experience, I find myself softer, humbler, and more grounded than ever. For me, this experience has solidified that providing exceptional healthcare is so much more than training, applied knowledge, and response times. It’s being vulnerable and showing our patients empathy, compassion, and kindness. I was inspired and comforted by the courageous vulnerability many of the nurses, medics, and doctors openly displayed while caring for my mom. I am sincerely grateful for their teachings.

 

 

Our own personal tragedies can make us better. For me, there is a silver lining in experiencing personal loss. I’ve gained a better understanding of those facing a personal hardship of their own. I am less inclined to hide my humanity both in and out of uniform. It takes courage to truly listen and help others when they are in need. I realize that throughout my career I wasn’t always courageous with my emotions. Looking back, I believe I viewed emotional vulnerability as a weakness, therefore, my tears were rarely seen, and if they came they were shed conveniently in the privacy of my ambulance while grabbing a piece of equipment. Now I understand how important it is to allow your humanity to be seen. Personally, my mother’s departure clarified a lot things for me. It highlighted how limited our time is here on earth and solidified my belief that we are all here to help one another. I look forward to carrying on her legacy professionally by helping patients and mentoring those who are wanting to pursue a career in emergency medical services.

 

 


Andrea Abbas is the Field Operations Supervisor of Mobile Medical Response in Saginaw, MI. As a nationally registered paramedic, Andrea has served in emergency departments, on specialty EMS teams, in quality assurance and compliance, and in operations. After getting started in her EMS career Andrea served for ten years as a paramedic at Huron Valley Ambulance in Ann Arbor, MI. In addition to her career in EMS, Andrea has a Master’s Degree in molecular biology and worked as an instructor in the Biology Department of Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, MI. You can read more about Andrea’s experience in EMS on her personal blog: The Emergency Medical Services Professional Blog Site
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