When Brad Cameron started work as a paramedic 36 years ago, he says, he was a “fledgling” Christian, and his first ever ambulance call became a heart-wrenching challenge to his faith.
Early in his career, Cameron and his partner responded to a Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) call. Entering the residence, they found distraught parents: a father who Cameron describes as “vertically comatose” and a mother who had to be restrained as she tried to stab herself with a kitchen knife. Then Cameron moved into the baby’s room.
“When you’re young and you’re involved in Emergency Medical Services…you think you pretty well know it all,” Cameron remembers. But as he drew closer to the crib he was met with the sight of a three-month old baby boy—the same age as Cameron’s own daughter—wearing the same sleeper he had just seen his daughter in at home a mere 15 minutes earlier.
“You do the call, you’re professional…you have a mental acuity that prioritizes what needs to be done,” says Cameron. But as a new Christian, the experience had a grave impact on him. “I’m thinking, ‘What kind of a job is this? Who does this kind of stuff?’”
Cameron, who is now the Manager of B.C. Emergency Health Services in Victoria, B.C., told this story to attendees of the National Anglican and Lutheran Worship Conference in Victoria, July 17, as part of a workshop entitled “Personal Spiritual Resiliency: First Responders Speak.” Cameron joined retired Fire Chief of Langford, B.C., and humanitarian worker Bob Beckett and Lieutenant Commander John Hounsell-Drover, chaplain with the Canadian Armed Forces, for a panel discussion.
Each of the panelists spoke about the importance of supporting those who work in environments of extreme stress and respond frequently to critical incidents. At the time when Cameron starting working, he says, there was a “draconian philosophy” in dealing with these stresses: move on and don’t talk about it.
“After a traumatic incident, it was, ‘Suck it up, buttercup. Go home and have a couple of drinks and get on with it,’” remembers Beckett, who was a firefighter for 40 years before retiring in 2017. “Thank goodness that has changed now.” Emergency responders now have far more resources, he says, including employee assistance programs and Critical Incident Stress (CIS) debriefings.
Cameron says that he has begun engaging with his staff in daily CIS briefings, “probably the most cathartic element to dealing with stress.” There is a 70% failure rate for those going into the ambulance service, Cameron says, noting that along with frequent critical incidents, the job also has “an ambient stress, just going to work and not knowing what’s going to happen,” which has a “cumulative effect.”
B.C. Emergency Medical Services has been developing CIS programs since 2015, Cameron says. Since 2016 they have sent more than 1,100 of their paramedics (of 3,600 in the province) to a psychologist-facilitated resilience program. “It has made an amazing difference…to help them recognize the manifestation of PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] and stress, the CIS, in their lives, and acknowledge that there’s people out there who recognize it and support it”.
Along with awareness of these issues, Beckett adds, it is important to provide “preventative literature and actions.” These include outreach not only to first responders, but their families as well. “The more of a parachute that we can create, the better we’re going to be,” he says, adding that church communities can help recognize signs and symptoms and provide support for families and first responders.
Speaking from the military perspective, Hounsell-Drover offers that community support is especially important. “PTSD is a lived reality for people who are serving” in the Canadian Armed Forces, he says, and while there are many supports within the organization, “at the end of the day, we all leave the military and have to go back to our own communities…When they leave that system and go back to civilian life, they still need to continue to have support. Faith communities, I find, can really step up and bring the supports that are needed.”
Each of the panelists acknowledged the importance of camaraderie and solidarity to dealing with trauma. “That esprit de corps that comes out of being in a uniform is really positive…having [people] sit in a uniform and realizing they are part of a team, they’re being supported by a team,” says Cameron. “It’s the same idea as being part of a church, right? You know you’re going to get support and get help.”
Despite these supports, it’s difficult not to become jaded by professions that carry so much stress. “It’s surprising how few Christians there are in the ambulance service,” Cameron notes. “I’m convinced it’s because of the exposure that we see to so much tragedy, pain and suffering,” he says, adding that it’s easy to become “calcified,” lacking empathy and emotional sensitivity.
As a chaplain, Hounsell-Drover says, he has seen many people struggle “with not only what they have had to do in uniform,” but with returning to their communities and feeling they do not have a safe place “where their story can be told.”
Faith-based organizations can help by “creating relationships,” says Beckett. “You exist, you have a facility, but that doesn’t really mean anything to those who are not part of your congregation.”
“I have been in the wealthiest houses in this city, and the poorest houses, and I’ve never in all of my years gone to treat a patient and had them say, as they think they’re dying… ‘Hang on, swing me around to my car collection, let me have one last look at it,’” says Cameron. People ask instead for their families. “Life is about relationships. From a faith-based paramedic, the most important relationship is the one you have with God.”
Support from faith-based groups ‘a natural’
Faith groups can support first responders and aid them in their work, the panelists say.
Beckett says he has realized “the value and importance of faith-based organizations” helping in practical ways when disaster strikes, citing examples from his career, like a volunteer group of Christians who helped rebuild first responders’ homes in Mississippi after a devastating flood, or the faith-based organization in Langford, B.C. that organized a day camp for children when a teachers’ strike shut down a school. “Think of the resources that you have at your disposal: your physical resources, your human resources that you have. Your expertise in the area of caring, compassion and love. It’s a natural.”
It is also important to offer help with no strings attached, says Beckett. After serving at Ground Zero in New York after September 11th, Beckett started a program through the Canadian military to supply firefighting equipment to firefighters in Afghanistan. “A firefighter colleague from Toronto called me up and said, ‘I’m with a large Christian group, and I have resources beyond your imagination. Give me a list of what you want and we’ll box it up,’” Beckett recalls.
However, the offer came with a stipulation: each box had to contain a Bible.
Beckett turned down the offer. “As a humanitarian…each time I deploy somewhere or I go somewhere…I don’t go there looking for anything. I don’t want anything back. There are no expectations other than to give of myself, and that’s what I would promote for faith-based organizations,” he says.
He recalled a church in Langford who hosted a barbeque for the department in the firehall to thank them for their work in the community, an event which showed their support and appreciation even though faith was not discussed. Concurring, Cameron adds, “The impetus behind what you do is crucially important. But the application is without strings. That’s where you’re going to get buy-in from folks.”
In the case of the military, Hounsell-Drover notes that he has often felt a sense of discomfort from church groups. “I’d like to say, we don’t blame firefighters for fires, doctors for disease—so why do we blame our military for war?” He would like to see a greater acceptance and understanding towards those who serve.
Chaplains, too, benefit from the support of the greater church, he adds. “Finding ways to reach out to those communities can be of great, great benefit, to help them know that they’re not alone, because…we often feel like we’re isolated to ourselves on our bases.”
Churches can also support first responders through prayer, says Cameron. New, young emergency service workers “get exposed to some pretty horrific stuff, and quite frankly, they are not psychologically prepared for what they see,” he says, and would benefit from prayers that they retain emotional sensitivity.