There’s nothing new about people whinging, I do it all the time (not so much lately). The nifty little catch phrase first-world problem is all over the interwebs these days, a disparaging term meant to highlight the differences between those whingers that have and whoever the person using it decides does not. Sometimes it’s valid. If you complain your day is shit and demand a refund because you got the pickle on your burger instead of on the side while a homeless person panhandles outside for enough spare change to eat, then you deserve a bit of derision. Mostly, though, comparisons like these are dangerous and unnecessary, particularly if you’re depreciating your own needs in favour of someone else’s.
In ambulance school they did their best to try to prepare us for the big calls, things like huge highway pile-ups and plane crashes. They taught us about multi-casualty incidents and triage, on-scene command hierarchy, and working effectively with allied services. I may not remember what they said about standing on the roadway to guide the helicopter in, but the simple and clear definition they gave the word disaster stuck in my mind: An event that overwhelms the resources you have available and your ability to manage it. If you look in your handy Oxford English Dictionary you might find something different, but not terribly so.
I often use the term personal resources to describe the abstract idea of a person’s amount of inner psychological fuel, and I think this is where that concept came from. When someone calls whatever emergency number they have where they live, it’s usually because they’re experiencing a personal disaster of their own. I won’t list examples, because there are far too many and some so obvious you might think I was impugning your imagination, so instead, let me tell one of the stories I remember with a smile and minor flush of pride.
We were working out of 38 station in the west end of Toronto on a generally quiet weekday night (sounds like the opening of Dragnet, doesn’t it?). Sometime around midnight we were tasked on a low priority call for a sick child. It was a small house, but nicely appointed, and inside was a young, first-time mom, alone with the cutest little two-year-old girl you’d ever seen, tucked into the grown up bed. Mom was holding herself together pretty well but you could easily see how scared she was. First things first, I did a vitals check and everything was fine. The little girl was sleepy, but responding normally and running only a slight fever. There’d been no seizures, and that afternoon they had been to the paediatrician who had diagnosed mild bronchitis then prescribed some cough medicine, children’s Tylenol for the fever, and a course of antibiotics. It was all good. At that point, my partner mosied on back to the ambulance to take a nap and mom became the patient I focused on.
I explained her options, describing what going to the emergency room would be like and what they would probably do for her, which was no more than her own doctor had done that day. In fact, I said they would probably send her home a few hours later with nothing more than the medications she’d already been given. Technically, we weren’t allowed to give advice about whether someone should be transported to a hospital or not, but I did tell her I would be comfortable with her decision either way. We did discuss the possibility of febrile seizures as well if some of you think I may have sugar-coated anything.
We spent about 20 minutes sitting on the edge of the bed talking, while I checked the little girl’s vitals a couple more times. Mom was noticeably calmer when I prepared to leave. In fact, she felt embarrassed for having wasted my time when, as she said, someone down the road could be having a heart attack. To this day, I remember almost verbatim what I said to her and the smile it evoked.
“That person down the road will get their ambulance,” I said, “and the help they need. Right now I’m here for you. Your needs are just as valid and important, and deserving of my help, as anyone else’s. Don’t compare the two. If you’re ever not sure about calling an ambulance, call an ambulance. Let us figure it out.” Then I told her we’re never far away and she knew my number if anything changed.
She actually hugged me. It remains to this day one of my favourite memories of my time as a paramedic.
I’ve never had a heart attack, but that would be a pretty huge personal disaster. When I was cocooned in my little nest of fear and alcohol and ran out of money, so was that. I choose not to compare the two because in the latter I needed help as desperately as I would in the former, and honestly, how can you compare things like that? Looking at someone you perceive to be in straits more dire than yours only gives you solace for your own circumstances, which itself is valid, but doesn’t see to or remove your needs.
You are significant. Your personal disaster is still a disaster, and that’s significant too, because everyone needs help now and again.