Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a subject much in the news these days. It can affect anyone, in a variety of situations; from a soldier returning from a combat zone, to someone who witnessed a bad traffic accident. I found this recent definition of the condition on the NHS website.
The type of events that can cause PTSD include:
serious road accidents
violent personal assaults, such as sexual assault, mugging or robbery
prolonged sexual abuse, violence or severe neglect
witnessing violent deaths
being held hostage
natural disasters, such as severe floods, earthquakes or tsunamis
PTSD can develop immediately after someone experiences a disturbing event or it can occur weeks, months or even years later.
PTSD is estimated to affect about 1 in every 3 people who have a traumatic experience, but it’s not clear exactly why some people develop the condition and others don’t.’
You notice that there is nothing in that list specifically about working for the Emergency Services. I suppose that if you choose to embark on a career in the Ambulance Service, or the Fire Service, and The Police, you should anticipate the likelihood of having to deal with a lot of unpleasant things, and that you will be witnessing things that others never see. The same applies to those who choose a career in the Armed Forces, but they are on the list, given the extreme nature of their role I presume. It would appear that being the victim of something, rather than just witnessing it, or dealing with the outcome as part of your job, is the defining factor here. So how does this manifest itself, what are the tell-tale signs? This is again from the NHS website.
Signs and symptoms
‘Someone with PTSD will often relive the traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks, and may experience feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt.
They may also have problems sleeping, such as insomnia, and find concentrating difficult.
These symptoms are often severe and persistent enough to have a significant impact on the person’s day-to-day life.’
For more than twenty years, I witnessed all sorts of unspeakable things working on an Ambulance in Central London. Countless dead bodies, attempted resuscitation of people of all ages, including babies. Finding corpses that had been neglected and were decaying, traumatic limb amputations, decapitations, murders, sexual assaults, and violent crimes. Sufferers of terminal illnesses, people who had jumped from a great height to their deaths, or under trains, or sometimes into water. Suicide by drug overdose, death from drug addiction, victims of shootings and stabbings, others seriously injured in road accidents. I saw them all, and dealt with them accordingly. There was a lighter side. Delivering babies, chatting to interesting elderly people, the banter with colleagues and hospital staff. But generally, it was mostly unpleasant, and often downright nasty.
We were threatened and attacked too. I was physically assaulted a few times, and verbally abused daily. I have been threatened with violence, had knives waved at me, and on two occasions, even a gun was brandished. We were fair game, and enjoyed little respect. Writing the stories about my experiences on this blog has brought back many recollections of my time there; and as memories, they are mostly good ones, surprisingly. When you are dealing with the victims of terrorist bombings for example, you don’t really have time to think about stress, or trauma to the mind. You just do the job you signed up for, and move on to the next one. The day after that, you turn up for work, and deal with whatever is thrown at you, starting all over again, from scratch.
I did my last shift in an Ambulance in November 2001, before moving on to pastures new, as a Communications Officer with the Metropolitan Police. I can honestly say that I didn’t miss the job at all, just some of the people. I joined at the right time for me, and left when it no longer felt right. Since retiring in 2012, I often have vivid dreams. About 70% of those dreams happen to be related to working in an ambulance. Two nights ago, I woke from one such dream at around 3AM. I had been driving an ambulance, and I had got lost, unable to find the location of the job I was required to go to. Rather than being in London, I was on the coast somewhere, driving near the edge of a cliff. The person beside me was unfamiliar, not one of my old crew-mates at all. This is a recurring dream, though often the person with me is someone I know well, or a person that I could never have known at the time, but have met since. They are not unpleasant dreams, but they usually concern lots of driving, and getting nowhere fast. Perhaps someone skilled in interpretation of dreams can explain them, I know that I cannot.
I suppose I always suspected that PTSD might be the legacy of a third of my life spent attending 999 calls. But it wasn’t. I didn’t get it, though some others surely did. I was one of the lucky ones.