How people perceive a lifesaver’s uniform
I wore my ambulance uniform with a certain level of pride.
As I would get ready for work, buttoning up the dark green shirt, fastening the catch on the trousers and sliding my epaulettes onto my shoulders, I would stand in front of the bedroom mirror and smooth down the NHS emblem on one side of my chest, and the embroidered crown on the other, with a sense of honour.
There was something about that outfit that changed me. By day I was Sarah — introverted, awkward Sarah who preferred nights in with a good book than any kind of excitement. By night I was SARAH!! — the lifesaver and brave, reassuring, witty Paramedic who would laugh and joke with her patients and their families to stop them from worrying; or hold the hand of an old lady as her husband passed away; or pump powerfully on a person’s chest, trying to restart their failing heart.
The uniform, it made me someone else. A person I did not recognise. I’ve yet to decide if that’s a good or bad thing.
What I do know is this…
My own perceptions were only the half of it.
Of course the public saw my uniform as a thing to be revered. The word ‘Paramedic’ emblazoned on my shoulder had exactly the effect it was supposed to have. It would elicit a sense of calm — the panic was over, help had arrived.
I would walk into the most horrific of situations and find expectant faces, all turned towards me, waiting for me to do whatever magic I knew that could save the life of their loved one.
The first time you encounter those waiting, anticipating eyes is the moment you find out whether you’re really the right material for the job or not. It’s that most visceral of feelings, the true ‘fight or flight’ mode kicking in. Are you going to calmly smile at the crowd around you whilst slipping on your gloves and getting to work? Or are you going to run screaming from the room?
The thing is…
You start to believe the hype. You start to believe you’re really a superhero…
When, in actual fact, underneath that green material and those badges and the medical gloves and equipment and calming smiles, the truth is, you’re really not. You are still just a human being. Like all those other people there.
I think it’s important to remember that fact. To stop being sucked in and believing the myth. As paramedics we are not superheroes. We are not lifesavers. We’re not even extraordinary people.
What we are are people with some learned skills, a bit of medical knowledge and some gained experiences — and all these things combine together to create people who are particularly helpful to you in a medical emergency.
Truth be told, we are also witnesses. Witnesses to pain and sadness and fear and hate and love and life and death and every emotion inbetween because we have the absolute honour of meeting people at some of the most trying times in their lives. That we might make a worthy difference in that moment becomes a side effect of our presence. It’s the one thing we all hope to achieve, but the one thing we know doesn’t always happen.
So, our uniform is not a superhero’s cape.
It’s a suit of armour, of a sort. Or a bravery cape, if you will. It certainly doesn’t protect us, whether physically or mentally. But it does give us the courage to step into those life or death moments and take a breath before we take charge of the situation.
That’s something we would all do well to remember, the next time we call for an ambulance, or the next time you put your paramedic uniform on before the start of another busy shift. And I say this not to belittle the profession, or trivialise the good work paramedics do… but to remind you all, paramedics included, you are all human and everything that goes with that statement is ok — making mistakes, feeling helpless, not being able to fix a situation or save that life, or taking home the feelings those situations put you in…
It’s all ok.
And it’s time to change the conversation.
Sarah is a former paramedic from the UK, now living in British Columbia, Canada, with her paramedic husband and their two cats. She is a full-time freelance writer and photographer who also has several personal projects she undertakes in her free time. This article is part of her ‘PTSD in the Emergency Services’ Project and stems from her own experiences as a First Responder. If you would like to talk to Sarah about your own experiences, please email her: firstname.lastname@example.org.