I was working an ambulance shift recently when somehow we all got talking about deaths we have responded to. It isn’t an uncommon conversation when a group of EMS people get together.
The one I shared was in town when I responded as a police officer for the Kennebunk Police Department. I arrived to an unresponsive person call and found a patient in a hospital bed in the home with panicked relatives waiting for hospice. I looked at the cancer patient and knew death was very near. The family didn’t know that the cop happened to be a paramedic so when they asked me how long they thought their father had I told them, “More likely minutes than hours,” they were surprised.
I put on my amateur hospice hat and told them it would be a good time to gather around the bed and say anything they would like to say. Hospice had prepared them for the likelihood of death occurring soon so I asked them if they wanted to tell their father it was OK to go. They did and held his hand as he took his last breaths. (This was also looked at as a bit unusual for a cop to do.)
The hospice nurse showed up a short time later and helped with the arrangements. I cleared the transport of the deceased directly to the funeral home, expressed my condolences and left.
One of the conversations we need to have in public safety is in dealing with death as a natural process rather than a crime scene or big stressful issue on whether there is a DNR. Sometimes both of these things are an issue – but our training on death makes it more complicated than it has to be, while missing the meaningful contribution we can make to the dying and their family.
When EMS providers feel stress, I believe it may be a result of being detached from the scene rather than involved in the scene and caring for those left behind. Seeing people in the immediate stages of grief can be difficult, but when you engage rather than withdraw, I believe you process it better.
When at a scene involving a death, consider it part of your responsibility to care for those left behind. From simply expressing condolences to answering questions or helping loved ones to say goodbye, your efforts for the family are valuable to you and them.
I prepared a new dynamic learning exercise for educators to begin the conversation of how EMTs and paramedics can help the family at a death scene.