The Empathy Initiative
Transforming Healthcare Education & Practice

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A mile in the bloody boots of a first responder

The scene was a flood of red and blue flashing lights. Armed offenders were on the loose and police and paramedics were working hard to provide high level care for critically wounded patients…oh, and stay safe. Police voices were raised, pressure and stress levels off the charts, and safety compromised. Decisions made in a split second are hard and can have significant and ongoing consequences, and our first responders live their lives reflecting on these decisions.

As a NSW Ambulance Chaplain part of my job is to work with paramedics, providing psychological first aid and helping them work through emotions relating to these events (and life in general). I see the positive and negative outcomes this reflective process can have. While we hear a lot about post-traumatic stress, in my experience (my observations only, no evidence here) post-traumatic growth more frequently occurs. As safe spaces are made by managers, peer support officers and chaplains, staff can reflect, learn and grow, making meaning of these events and strengthening positive attitudes and effective coping behaviours.

But there is an emerging trend that worries me. It is trial by social media - the creation of an unsafe space. I worry about how this impacts first responders, especially in relation to post-traumatic stress. My personal rule is to never read the comments. It’s a place where people who hold strong opinions, often small and ill-informed but vocal minorities on either end of the spectrum, have an unfiltered place to vent. Have you noticed that moderate or tolerant views almost never appear in these places?

This week I broke my rule. I read the comments under an article about the incident I’ve described above, which I also had some involvement with. And I was horrified. The paramedics were unscathed, however commentary on the police was brutal. The first post was around how rude the police officer on point duty was. It appears that their manner and tone may have been abrupt. Subsequent comments then piled in demanding police do more to protect the community, how the police located in this community do nothing other than eat fast food and are ineffective, and how they were so inconsiderate not disclosing information should anyone dare to ask (the actual words used were far harsher than what I am using here but you get the idea).

It prompted me to consider the potential narrative from the police officer’s view. You are a junior officer on the scene of a violent and graphic crime with armed offenders on the loose. You have been on point duty since the start of your shift and nine hours later people are still walking past you, demanding access to their properties or asking you for the 1000th time what happened. You know the rules, and information is not allowed to be disclosed less you breach protocol or jeopardise the court case. You have been standing in the hot sun for hours and no one has bought you a drink, let alone anything to eat. It is a crime scene so you can’t use the bathroom either. You are frustrated that you can’t help in the collection of evidence, and the cars driving past on the busy road in front of you do nothing but sound their horns and hurl unwelcome advice regarding your resemblance to a certain animal and what they would like to do to you. And you have to stand there and endure it all.

I have no idea if the police involved were right or wrong, and that is not the point of this piece. But what if these keyboard warriors stopped to consider life from the police officer’s perspective? What if they chose an empathic response instead of a hostile defence of bruised egos? What if they knew they had directly contributed to a first responder developing PTSD, or committing suicide? It wouldn’t be the first time.

Choosing an empathic response requires effort. I wonder how things could have played out if instead of racing to social media to vent their outrage, they instead raced back inside their house, and returned to that officer with a cold drink and a supportive comment? I wonder what the response would have been… 

Katie Tunks Leach works as a Chaplain for the New South Wales Ambulance Service and as an Associate Lecturer in Nursing in the Faculty of Health at the University of Technology Sydney. She is currently enrolled as a Higher Degree Research Student where she is researching the contribution of chaplains in the ambulance service to wellbeing outcomes for staff.

Nathan Wiltshire