As healthcare professionals, we spend so much time caring for the health and well being of others that we often overlook the importance of caring for ourselves. I can think back to the days when I was full time on the ambulance, working very busy 24 hour shifts. For many years, I put my health and well being on the back burner. Sleep during 24 hour shifts was scarce, especially at busy stations, and eating healthy always seemed to take more effort than grabbing something heavily processed from the gas station or fries from a fast food joint. Coffee was my best friend and caffeine became a way for me to suppress my body’s natural cues that I needed time to rest and repair. During the 7 year period I was full-time on the ambulance, I also responded to some of the most mentally draining calls of my 18-year career in EMS.
The toll that the lack of attention to my wellness took on my mind and body was gradual and cumulative. It snuck up on me gently and quietly. At one point, I convinced myself that I was someone that could function on 3-4 hours of sleep a night. I also convinced myself I was well adjusted and adapted to high intensity stress on the job and outside of work, and didn’t need the outlets that non-adrenaline junkies needed. The burnout they talked about in paramedic school wasn’t going to get me. I was so sure of that.
Then at one point in my career, I started to hear more and more about paramedics and EMT’s in neighboring counties that had committed suicide. It was alarming to me because it started to seem so frequent. I was also witnessing coworkers and colleagues developing chronic diseases and cancer at young ages. It didn’t take a scientific study for me to realize that something was very, very wrong.
So I started to do some research. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of information available about the suicide rates of paramedics and EMT’s, or the long-term health of the profession. Lack of research didn’t do anything to quell the alarm that was sounding within me. By taking the time to be still and introspective, I could finally see how mental and physical well being could deteriorate, just by looking at how I’d neglected my own health for years.
“Take care of your star player.” That was what my wonderful mother always used to say, to encourage my siblings and I to take care of ourselves. Suddenly, that phrase had new meaning to me. How could I care for others to the best of my ability when I had neglected to take care of myself for so long?
I realized I wasn’t superhuman. I couldn’t function to my highest ability on 3-4 hours of sleep. Gas station food, french fries, and coffee wouldn’t nourish my body the way it needed to be nourished. I made a pledge to myself back then that I would take care of myself first, mind, body and spirit. I would drink lots of water, make the extra effort to eat healthy, and get more sleep. I started meditating, doing acupuncture, and speaking to a counselor to work through the stress that I had long been carrying but failed to acknowledge.
None of us are superhuman. Our bodies need sleep, healthy food, exercise, and water, and our minds need outlets for stress. It’s easy in this fast paced world, and especially during this pandemic, to dive head-first into our work while sacrificing our own wellness. I can tell you from experience, though, that this is not a sustainable model, and the cracks will eventually show. I encourage my fellow health care workers to do something for yourselves everyday. Drink all that water in your refillable water bottle. Take five minutes for a mental time out. Eat a healthy meal. Catch up on sleep, and as my mom would say: “Take care of your star player.”
Want more practical ideas for finding time to take care of yourself? Check out 10 Things EMS Providers Need to Know About Wellness and Fitness.