Diluting The Call

Kathy Muhlhan

Guest Writer

Most people who come into emergency dispatch enter the business because they want to help people. We are a caring bunch. But there is a cost to that caring. If you stay in the industry for more than a few years, one of the biggest challenges is maintaining your desire to help, without becoming jaded, crispy, brittle, or angry.

As caring individuals who are constantly thrust into people’s tragedies, lack of care from others can really get us going. The man who called an ambulance for the neighbor who had a cardiac arrest while mowing his lawn but then refused to give him CPR. Once we are a little worn down, the annoying things can start to bother us too. The woman who called the fire brigade for a bird that was “stuck in a tree.” The flood of callers to police at midnight on New Year’s Eve who complain about the noise as fireworks go off.

When I have taken a call on a Friday and have the weekend off, sometimes the voices from the calls follow me around for days. A husband calling for his wife who has just passed away, “Nina, Nina, Nina …” I thought I had his voice out of my head but as soon as I write this, I can hear it again. His pain is now part of me.

Taking the sting out of those memories is important. The way I do this is to tell a redacted version of the story to at least one person. The worse the call, the more people I need to tell. It’s like I’m sharing the burden around. Each time I tell the story, a little bit more of the pain is released. I used to feel bad about putting the pain of the story on someone else, but I’ve realized that it’s not the same for my listener because they didn’t hear the call and don’t know all the details.

Cultivating hobbies can provide much-needed self-care. One of my hobbies is flower photography. I love growing flowers, looking at them, picking them, arranging them, and photographing them. My son gave me a bunch of chrysanthemums that lasted for weeks, and it prompted the thought: “If I put blue dye in the water, will the flowers turn blue?” Turns out they do a bit. But so did my favorite jug! The porous part, the unprotected part, let the blue in. The blue is like the pain of your calls. You can hold it in you, but it will seep into any unprotected parts of you. It will become part of you.

Like dye in my jug, memories of calls can overwhelm my ability to hold them without it changing me. When I share them, they become diluted and less powerful. They are still there but can be remembered with less, or sometimes no, pain.

When my husband was diagnosed with cancer, we were in shock. The process of going around and telling close family and friends was painful, but it was an important part of processing the news. After telling each person all the details, it began to feel more real. Until we told all the important people in our lives, it felt like a nightmare we were going to wake up from. To absorb the information, we had to share it with others. By sharing it, we were also diluting the pain.

I’m not advocating for the complaining Emergency Dispatcher who gets off the phone and whines about every caller, promoting an unprofessional and uncaring attitude. But I am suggesting that we need to share the stories that stick with us to dilute their power and take away their sting. Together we can help carry the burden of the care and service that we provide.

Feeling a little jaded, crispy, brittle, or angry? Maybe it’s time to share some stories.