Kyle Meyer was always proud of the work he did as a paramedic in Nova Scotia. But the job also took a toll on his mental health.
Each traumatic call was like an angry dog I locked in my mind
Kyle Meyer · for CBC First Person
This First Person column is written by Kyle Meyer, a former paramedic who lives in Halifax. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
It’s an odd thing to join in a stranger’s tragedy — to feel the fear of a parent who found their baby blue and not breathing, the panic of a man who went to visit his mother only to find she had died in her sleep or the hopelessness of someone experiencing homelessness or addiction, often both.
For 17 years these moments were a typical day for me as a paramedic.
I felt it — all of their emotions — and couldn’t show it or let it interfere with the job at hand. I was responsible for the physical wellbeing of the patients in my care. So, I packed my feelings away. Pushed it to the back of my mind and locked it there, like an angry pitbull that I didn’t know what to do with, never allowing it out.
The problem was that the angry dog didn’t want to stay contained. I had two paths in front of me: I could either acknowledge the dog, get professional help to catch it and soothe it, and then eventually let it out slowly. Or I could ignore the angry dog barking at my mind’s door until it eventually broke down the barrier and ran rampantly through my life.
I chose option number three. I kept piling more angry dogs in that room with every call I went on. I didn’t think it would become a problem; not even when I started noticing changes to myself did I acknowledge that those dogs were threatening to break out.
In 2015, I started taking the deaths of patients more personally, holding myself responsible for them even when I arrived at the scene after they had already taken their last breath. I blamed myself and felt I had failed them, began considering myself a fraud, and when I considered taking time off for my mental health or going on stress leave I dismissed it, not wanting to be “that guy” — lazy, or seemingly using mental health as an excuse to get out of work.
Eventually, those feelings bled over to my personal life and I felt I was failing my family.
I would be reading to my toddler from her favourite book and thoughts of horrific accidents and tragedies would seep into my mind. I tried a few different therapists but none really helped me. Some made me feel worse, so I stopped asking for help.
There were new stressors on top of the existing tragic calls like becoming a parent for the first time at the beginning of a pandemic and being unable to take parent-baby classes with her because it was all shut down to stop the spread of the virus. Or the stress of being a paramedic in the midst of a pandemic, worried I would bring COVID home to my six-month-old daughter or being unable to help patients against what was a poorly understood virus at the time. Being responsible for all of them. Finding more angry dogs to add to the already wild pack in my mind.
Then there was the death of a colleague, whom I again felt I failed. She was off duty when she died, but I was the one who responded to that call.
I considered time off, but again didn’t want to be “that guy.”
Many months later, I realized what I was going through was not typical, it wasn’t “just who I am” and it definitely wasn’t sustainable. I had become distant from my family, and even when I was physically present, my mind would wander. I was sad and often irritable. I had to take time away from the ambulance and look after myself. I owed it to my family, if not to myself.
So that’s what I did.
I took six months off, found a psychologist who specializes in first responder trauma and worked towards getting better.
My PTSD diagnosis validated everything I’d felt. I worked through the therapy and got better. Once I felt better I was able to see how unwell I really was and for how long. I was able to see how unhealthy the job is.
When I returned to work in February, the dogs would still occasionally bark. I dreaded what the shift might bring, what situation would I be thrust into and who I would be responsible for. I came to the conclusion I had reached my ambulance shelf life.
Although I was feeling better, I was tired of the tragedy and the loss. I knew it was no longer healthy for me, so I resigned.
It felt like a weight being lifted off me.
I’ll always be proud of the work I did as a paramedic, but I’m also proud I knew when to give it up.
WATCH | First responders in northern Ontario get more mental health support:
More mental health support is coming to first responders in Thunder Bay
Featured VideoBoots on the Ground runs a peer support line for emergency responders throughout Ontario. The organization is celebrating two milestones in Thunder Bay: they now have enough volunteers to build a local team to do peer-to-peer debriefings, and a therapy dog for when first responders need mental health support.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kyle Meyer worked as a paramedic for 17 years before handing in his resignation. He lives in Halifax with his wife and daughter.