Time to get personal: First aid and PTSD

I have just re-qualified as a first aid provider with St John Ambulance and this triggered some thoughts about sharing a story on here about my experience with death and PTSD as a first aider.

I won’t go into too much detail about the individual involved as they have surviving relatives and it would be unethical of me to reveal too much in a public forum such as this. However, I feel that sharing my experience is important as death is not always interesting/entertaining/fascinating. It can be scary, traumatic and difficult, regardless of how well adjusted to it you are.

My story starts like any other really. I was at work (not my current job) when a person I knew well suddenly collapsed a few rooms away from my office. I attended as the first aider for the building and as one thing led to another, it was clear that this was not a situation that I was able to handle alone so the emergency services were called. They arrived and were fantastic but it was soon clear that there was only so much that could be done and my colleague died.

I was sent home by my boss to take some time off and to recover from what had happened. It was only until I sat down at home when the adrenaline of the situation finally left me and I realised that I had pulled almost every single muscle in my body from the physical exertion of what I had just had to be involved in. I had had to give CPR as well as move my colleague into a more comfortable position and as anyone who has had to help someone who is unconscious will tell you, even the tiniest person will suddenly weigh a lot more than you would expect.

So, I took some time off. Needless to say, I was upset and my emotions ran the whole gamut from profound guilt to sadness to almost being ok. It was at that point, when I felt like I was maybe getting past what had happened, that the dreams started. I started to have really vivid dreams of what had happened, which I couldn’t switch off. I then started having flashbacks when I was awake, as well as intrusive thoughts and nervous twitches and general symptoms of being incredibly stressed.

I had written a dissertation about PTSD for my undergraduate degree and I noticed the signs immediately. While I can never claim that my experience of PTSD was anything like someone who had served in the military (which is what my dissertation focused on), I knew that my mind was giving me warning signs and that if I didn’t take action immediately, this could become something far worse.

So I made an emergency appointment with a counsellor and talked about it. I talked about my experience, my guilt, my fear and how I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened. By talking about it with someone who didn’t know me, or anyone involved in what had happened, I was able to be more open and honest than I ever could have been with my colleagues and loved ones. It helped so much to talk and even though the counsellor did not offer solutions to what I was going through (that wasn’t really her job), she did give me the space to talk about death and how it had affected me.

I was honoured to be invited to the funeral of my colleague. I was terrified of meeting their family as at this point, I was still feeling guilty about what had happened, and that they would somehow hate me for that. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They thanked me for being with their loved one and for taking care of them at their hour of need. While of course they would have wanted things to have turned out differently, I could see how much they appreciated the fact that people were with their loved one at a time when they couldn’t be.

The funeral was led by a secular celebrant (the first one I had ever met) and the burial was held at a local natural burial ground. I had never been to a natural burial ground and had not even really known that they existed. The service was beautiful and seeing that my colleague was being buried in a gorgeous-yet-simple wicker coffin really brought tears to my eyes. Hearing about their life, their loves and everything else in between told me so much more about their existence on this earth than I ever knew before. The burial was emotional but poignant and I left the burial ground feeling a lot more at peace with what had happened.

The reason as to why I wanted to share this experience with readers of this blog is two-fold:

1. If you have experienced anything like this as are finding it hard to cope, please seek professional help. Asking for help and seeing a mental health professional of any kind is a daunting prospect, one that many people try to put off or avoid. I could spot a mile off what was happening to my mental health and I was lucky enough to be in a position where I could take action on my own behalf. Not everyone has that luxury so if you know someone who is experiencing these difficulties, please try and encourage them to talk about it with someone. That someone does not have to be you remember, but it can be.

2. I wanted to highlight how going through a death ritual can be so profoundly healing. By going to the natural burial site and experiencing what a natural burial was for the first time, was a big part of my own recovery and processing of the loss that had happened. While I cannot claim to have experienced a loss on anywhere near the same level of my colleague’s family, I was still there when they died and I watched over them as that happened. It is a different kind of loss but one that I was able to understand and deal with through attending a burial and through being a part of that important rite of passage in life.

This all happened over three years ago and I do still think of that day. For the first year after it happened, I found even re-training to do CPR on a Resusci Annie to be difficult. However, since my colleague’s death, I have saved lives. I have helped people and every time I do help someone, I do it with my colleague in the back of my mind, always there as an inspiration to do more and to do better. They lived a colourful and wonderful life, and they have taught me to do the same.

Image credit: Christina Rose Howker via Flickr Creative Commons
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