My mind is chaotically bouncing around thinking of everything and nothing all at once. I recall the morning five years ago when I returned home from working a 24-hour shift on my BLS (basic life support – EMT) unit. I’m new to EMS at this time and still getting used to the idea of working for 24 hours straight. I’m exhausted as I step through the front door to see my wife, recently back from a business trip, sitting at the kitchen table very distraught; something’s wrong.
My wife fully supported the midlife career change to EMS and the lifestyle change that came with it. She sees that I’m a happier person now that I feel a contribution to the human condition. The change in career was meant to bring a better sense of accomplishment into my life and therefore our relationship. Perhaps I miscalculated; possibly outside influences were at play and maybe I wasn’t getting the whole story. Either way she is steadfast in her decision; we are getting divorced. We spend three agonizing days in calm yet emotional discussions, all of which end with the same inevitable outcome.
After calling out sick (family emergency) for a few shifts I finally have to go back to work. I’m a walking wreck of an EMT. I can’t concentrate on the patients, my driving is atrocious, I space out while doing paperwork, and I’m forgetting nurses’ reports as soon as I receive them. Fortunately I’m primarily doing inter-facility transports (skilled nursing facility to hospital and back) so it’s not exactly emergency situations, yet it still deserves more concentration than I’m able to give right now.
Finally we get a break and make it to a post. I’m exhausted from not sleeping for the last week. All of our belongings have been divided and the paperwork has been filed. In a week I’ll be starting a six-month Paramedic Didactic program. I’ve been working up to this for a year now and I was very excited to get started. Now I’m not sure if I can keep my mind together and actually concentrate on the material at hand with my life crumbling around me. Even more concerning are the financial obligations that will have to be met on my own, with an income that is now just a fraction of what I was making just two years ago.
Sitting in the front seat of the rig I can see my breath coming in fast and shallow wisps, fogging up the window. I’m thinking of my marriage of fourteen years being over and wondering if I’m going to survive the coming years mentally, emotionally, and financially. My fingers start to numb and get rigid, I’m breathing at least thirty times a minute and I’m starting to shake. Oh my god! I’m actually having a panic attack!
I tell my partner I’m going to lie down in the back for a few minutes. As I enter the rear doors of the ambulance I pull a non-rebreather oxygen mask out of the cabinet. Putting it on without hooking up the oxygen, I lie down on the bench and close my eyes. The exhaled CO2 is now being taken back in after every breath; I’ve turned the non-rebreather into a “non-breather” in an attempt to re-balance the Ph level in my body. It turns out that the old cure for a panic attack (hyperventilating) of breathing into a paper bag actually had some science behind it and this EMS off-label remedy is working – I feel my hands start to relax. The exhaustion finally overwhelms me and I drift into a tormented half-awake dream state.