Awareness and First Aid

From debriefing with colleagues to building Lego models to chilling with a pet rabbit, ER24 paramedics share their unique approaches to protecting their mental health.

Michelle Kieck, ER24 Branch Manager, Pietermaritzburg

“I build Lego cars”

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“I’m a Lego fanatic. It’s an expensive hobby, but it’s so rewarding. Constructing Lego cars slows down my mind after a shift. I’ve built about 60% of the Lego Technic range – model racing cars, sports cars, trucks and tractors, which include advanced, elaborate systems and multiple moving parts. These are super-intricate cars. Most have working lights, moving pistons, iconic dihedral doors that rotate 90°, plus authentic graphics and colours, just like the real car. I’ve also built the Harry Potter castle, with more than 7 000 parts.

“Each model takes upwards of 20 hours to build, and I find I can focus for about two hours at a time. It’s like being in a flow zone; I’m totally absorbed in what I’m doing. As a child, I had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), so I never had the patience to build. But now I find it helps slow down my racing thoughts after work. I used to struggle with insomnia and battle to fall asleep. Now, after a few hours of focusing on these tiny plastic blocks, I can tune out before going to bed. I’ve had to teach myself patience – every block must be in the correct place. If not, you must break it all down and start over.

“I’ve been in emergency medical services (EMS) for 12 years – six of them with ER24. Keeping my mind and hands busy helps me calm down after a traumatic or gruelling shift. I display the models in my office so the ER24 crews can enjoy them too.”

Alan Rudnicki, ER24 Ambulance Emergency Assistant, West Metro

“I chill with my pet rabbit”

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“Every afternoon before night shift I chill in my garden and have coffee. My eight-year-old rabbit Matilda knows it’s work time for me, so she comes to lie next to me until I leave. I enjoy this quiet, stress-free time with her. She’s extremely intelligent and loves giving affection. It’s a small, simple way of clearing my head for the hours ahead.

“No shift, patient, or scene is the same, but as ER24 paramedics, we handle it. We might have to deal with declaring the death of a two-year old boy gunned down by a stray bullet or tend to a 95-year-old granny who fell down the stairs while out shopping; or help a teenager overdosing on tablets following an argument. 

“It’s not normal for a human being to be exposed to daily sadness or tragedy, but somehow, we manage. We’re a family – brothers and sisters of the EMS who have no choice but to cope. On a scene, we can’t show emotion. We focus on one thing only – our patient. Our main concern is the wellbeing of that stranger trapped in a car, or that homeless person lying in the street on a freezing night after collapsing due to hunger. We care for anyone, come rain or shine. We tend to victims out in the elements – nature testing us with torrential rain; drenched to the bone in our uniforms; cold; tired; and hungry.

“But it’s our patients who come first. They need our help – we can eat later, and our clothes will dry. At the end of the day, we can go home and say, ‘I saved that person's life’. It’s a feeling you can’t describe to anyone who hasn't experienced it.

“Matilda is always there when I come home, munching the edible herbs and flowers we’ve planted especially for her. There’s something very rewarding about enjoying the pure love of an animal that depends on you totally for their quality of life. And in the moments of silence with her I’m grateful for everything I have.”

Andrew Coutts, ER24 Intermediate Life Support practitioner, Southern Cape

“I’ve learned to debrief with colleagues”

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“I’ve been in the emergency medical services for more than two decades and have seen a lot of traumas. When I first started in the industry, there were almost no women, and the thinking was ‘cowboys don’t cry’. So, I learned to suppress much of my emotions in the early days. However, anyone who has seen what I have, especially during the 1987 wave of civil unrest in South Africa, would be inhuman if they weren’t emotionally affected. I believe I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I don’t have flashbacks, but I do remember cases in vivid detail. I can’t watch a movie with death and destruction, and even when reading a book about a family tragedy I will tear up.

“Previously some of my colleagues turned to unhealthy alternatives to cope after a difficult shift. But that is obviously dysfunctional and unsustainable. From about 1998 onwards, mental health came under the spotlight in the emergency services industry, and today we are proud to have ER24 counsellors who are trained to assist. I also like to talk to my colleagues after every shift, working through comments, criticism and complaints. This debriefing is more than a training tool that lets us work out how to do things better, faster, safer in the future; it’s also an opportunity to discuss our feelings and experiences. I find it helpful as my colleagues understand.”

Trauma counselling

ER24’s professional trauma counselling team provides trauma support to ER24 employees when necessary. This vital service is also available to the wider public.

ER24’s trauma counselling services include:

  • Telephonic counselling offered by a qualified case management team member or one of our trauma counsellors.
  • Face-to-face trauma counselling with our specialist trauma counselling team.
  • Critical incident management (assaults on employees, natural disasters, etc.) and emotional support.
  • Referral to a specialist network of psychologists and psychiatrists if required.