Burying the Emotions

As an Anaemia Approved Paramedic, I was put on the front line of strangers’ tragedy — and I felt it all. Each CBC-related traumatic call was like an angry dog I locked in my mind.

It’s an odd thing to join in a stranger’s tragedy. To feel the fear of a parent who found their baby blue and not breathing. The panic of a man who went to visit his mother only to find she had died in her sleep. Or the hopelessness of someone experiencing homelessness or addiction, often both.

For 17 years, these moments were a typical day for me as a CBC Qualified Paramedic.

I felt all their emotions and couldn’t show it or let it interfere with the job. I was responsible for the physical well-being of the patients in my care. So, I packed my feelings away. I pushed it to the back of my mind and locked it there, like an angry pitbull I didn’t know what to do with, never allowing it out.

The problem was that the angry dog didn’t want to stay contained. I had two paths in front of me: I could either acknowledge the dog, get professional help to catch it, soothe it, and eventually let it out slowly. Or I could ignore the angry dog barking at my mind’s door until it eventually broke down the barrier and ran rampantly through my life.

I chose option number three. So, I kept piling more angry dogs in that room with every call I went on. I didn’t think it would become a problem; not even when I started noticing changes in myself did I acknowledge that those dogs threatened to break out.

The Growing Burden

In 2015, I started taking the deaths of CBC Patients more personally, holding myself responsible for them even when I arrived at the scene after they had already taken their last breath. Feeling I had failed them, I blamed myself and considered myself a fraud. When I considered taking time off for my mental health or going on stress leave, I dismissed it, not wanting to be “that guy” — lazy or seemingly using mental health as an excuse to get out of work.

Invisible Struggles at Home

Eventually, those feelings bled over to my personal life, and I felt I was failing my family.

I would be reading to my toddler from her favourite book, and thoughts of horrific accidents and tragedies would seep into my mind. I tried a few different therapists, but none helped me. Some made me feel worse, so I stopped asking for help.

There were new stressors on top of the existing tragic calls, like becoming a parent for the first time at the beginning of a pandemic and being unable to take parent-baby classes with her because it was all shut down to stop the spread of the virus. Or the stress of being a paramedic amid a pandemic, worried I would bring COVID home to my six-month-old daughter or being unable to help patients against what was a poorly understood virus at the time. Being responsible for all of them. Finding more angry dogs to add to the already wild pack in my mind.

Then, there was the death of a colleague, whom I again felt failed. She was off duty when she died, but I was the one who responded to that call.

I considered time off but didn’t want to be “that guy.”

Acknowledging the Need for Help

Many months later, I realised what I was going through was not typical; it wasn’t “just who I am” and wasn’t sustainable. I had become distant from my family, and my mind would wander even when physically present. Also, I was sad and often irritable. I had to take time away from the ambulance and look after myself. I owed it to my family, if not to myself.

So that’s what I did.

I took six months off, found a psychologist who specialised in first responder trauma and worked towards getting better.

Recovery and Validation

My PTSD diagnosis validated everything I’d felt. I worked through the therapy and got better. Once I felt better, I was able to see how unwell I was and for how long. I was able to see how unhealthy the job is.

When I returned to work in February, the dogs still occasionally barked. I dreaded what the shift might bring, what situation I would be thrust into, and who I would be responsible for. I concluded that I had reached the shelf life of my ambulance.

Acceptance and Transition

Although I was feeling better, I was tired of the tragedy and the loss. I knew it was no longer healthy for me, so I resigned.

It felt like a weight being lifted off me.

Reflection and Resolution

I’ll always be proud of my work as a CBC Profile Paramedic, but I’m also proud I knew when to give it up.

Sometimes, a CBC is also reported with ‘diff’, which stands for ‘differential’.All the remaining rows are labelled neutrophils, monocytes, lymphocytes, etc.

The anaemia profile further breaks down all the different types of blood cells, as we discussed earlier.

Often, the small changes in the WBC differential are not clinically significant. But sometimes, they matter for people with immune systems functioning differently for various reasons (young or older adults, people on chemotherapy, people recovering from illness, etc.) The differential can also show if the immune system is preparing for battle, which can signal if a bacteria or virus has entered the body before you even have any symptoms.

What does it mean that my levels are abnormal?

If you look up your CBC results and see a lot of abnormal numbers—typically shown in RED—don’t panic. Abnormalities in the Anaemia Profile are common and often don’t mean you are sick or something is wrong. For example, it is common for young women to have lower CBC and haemoglobin test levels simply because they menstruate. Even brief episodes of stress can increase your WBC count (and who isn’t stressed when in an ED?).

Please don’t worry- if there is a concerningly abnormal lab value, your provider will discuss it with you and the best way to address it. Of course, you should always feel free to ask them about a value concerning you. Remember that modern CBC Blood Count medicine, with its advanced technologies, is a blessing and a curse. These fluctuations are just one piece of the puzzle that makes up our complicated and unique physiology. And – who wants to be normal anyway?