Once upon a time, many years ago, I sat at a conference table in the middle of the afternoon with a man named John. We were in the meeting room at the Hillsborough County, Florida chapter of the American Red Cross; I’d been volunteering as a Public Affairs correspondent for a number of months, writing pieces for their newsletter and generally supporting their local outreach programs.
Today I was sitting with John, interviewing him for the front page article of our quarterly, the glossy color version of the newsletter that went out to Red Cross donors, supporters, and various politically-connected folks. We had decided to start doing profiles of people who had gone through our First Aid and CPR programs.
Even over fifteen years later, I still remember talking to John like it was yesterday. He had a great story.
John had actually taken the First Aid class in Cincinnati, a few years before. He then moved to Tampa, and had run into his own troubles, and now was struggling unemployed in the 2002 recession. He was considering going back up north. Life was stressful, hard, and he was doing his best – as the rest of us were – just to get through each day.
Then one day he saved a man’s life.
John was crossing the street in downtown Tampa, on his way to a job interview, when he witnessed a homeless man get hit by a car. The man flew, and came down hard. Even from where John stood, he could see that the man was badly hurt. John told me in that interview, “I just didn’t think. I just ran out there. At first I panicked, like I had no idea what to do, but then suddenly the training all came back. It took over. And I got on with it.”
The man had a traumatic head injury and was quickly going into shock. John yelled for someone to give him a blanket. By this time a crowd was forming, and John got the bleeding under control and kept the man warm until emergency responders arrived. Thanks to John’s quick intervention and training, that man survived. We ran the newsletter story under a photo of the two meeting in his hospital room, the injured man giving a thumbs-up.
I never saw John after that day. I don’t know if he got the job, or if he went back to Cincinnati. I hope things turned out okay for him, I do. When things get stressful around here – and they often are – I sometimes think of John and that instinctive dash into traffic on a hot downtown Tampa afternoon.
I thought about John again this morning, reading this Newsweek article about a 31-year-old Japanese journalist who literally worked herself to death in 2013. In a culture that sees working long hours as a valuable show of commitment to the company, she put in 159 hours and dropped dead of heart failure.
So yeah, stress kills. But what do you do when your job is to keep others alive?
When we think of PTSD, many of us automatically think of military service, probably as the result of a generation of Vietnam-struggle movies and then two major Mideast wars that have yet to truly end. But workplace PTSD is a demon that afflicts many, and you don’t have to be dodging incoming fire and mortars in order to experience it.
I learned quite a lot about this a few years ago, when I toured a 9-1-1 PSAP dispatch center as part of a client writing project. The project itself was intended to showcase a new contact center telecom and dispatch infrastructure for emergency management. In the process of learning how an emergency dispatch center worked, I also learned about the absolute crucial nature of accurate, fast, and above all reliable technology in those applications. I mean, of course. But I also learned about the heavy stress toll the job takes on the people who man those phones.
Stress is a nasty animal. Unfortunately, workplace PTSD doesn’t often offer the opportunity to just say, “Nope, not doing this today, today I’m going fishing.” Soldiers, doctors, EMTs, emergency dispatchers, firefighters, even teachers, all have to somehow confront their own very human fight-or-flight response and do extraordinarily tough jobs. They have to somehow make themselves tougher.
I think, I have it pretty easy. I’m a writer. Rarely is anyone’s life in my hands.
But you know, that could change in a moment. A chance crossing of a street. A car crash outside my window. An accident at home. Any number of scenarios. Just ask John: when he set foot outside his apartment that summer day, he had no idea that he would soon be struggling to keep an injured man alive. Avoidance isn’t always an option. Crisis plays by its own rules, on its own time.
We have to get resilient, all of us. We have to learn to be ready, to be responsive, so that when the time comes to act, we are able to do so effectively – and then, afterward, be able to recover emotionally and go on as normal, healthy human beings.
I said all that for two reasons. One, I mean it, and I sincerely hope that wherever you are today, reading this, that you are able to find your own resilience strategies for managing and processing that stress without killing yourself. We live in a tough, busy world, and it’s often not easy to navigate the choppy waters. We’re not competing for the High Stress Award here. You don’t need to be in a war zone or rushing an emergency patient into the OR in order to feel validated about your own stress. We all have our burdens, and learning to keep your head in tough situations is a skill we all could get better at. Don’t belittle your own traumas.
Two, I’d like to direct your attention to a company I only recently learned about, but whose mission I find intriguing, fascinating, and uplifting in equal measure: the Red Kite Project. They do workplace stress management/resilience training (focusing mainly on emergency first responders), using techniques refined in war zones such as Rwanda and Bosnia.
As a general rule, I don’t plug companies in this blog. This is a special exception. I encourage you to check them out.