Updated: Jul 19, 2021
By Special Guest Writer
Erica Snyder, ENP
A few years ago, right before Halloween, I had an extremely tough 9-1-1 call. A family member woke to find their very young child not conscious, not breathing. An almost routine call to me; I could handle this. But, that’s not how it turned out.
When someone calls saying they need help, dispatchers desperately want to help. That’s how I felt; I could give life-saving instructions and this could potentially be a good call. But that didn’t happen. Unbeknownst to me, the child was already deceased when the family member found them. I didn’t know that at the time and all I could think about was how I failed this family. How Halloween would be different for them this year, and every year after. I’m still not sure what made it so different than any other call where the patient does not survive. Was it the panic in the caller’s voice? Or the age of the patient? Perhaps, like so many other calls, it was simply the feeling of not being in control.
I felt dejected and left the room for a bit to gather myself because that’s all I thought I needed. I came back to the room and cried a little. This was unusual because I am not a crier... not at sad movies, coffee commercials, or greeting cards (unless a dog is involved). I remember wondering when I took another 9-1-1 medical call, why this caller thought they needed help right now. Didn’t they know they should wait because another family had just been devastated and I couldn’t help them? At the time, this line of thinking wasn’t worrisome to me. So after a bit, I spoke with a member of our Peer Support Team. We are lucky to have such a great team at this agency. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as helpful as I thought it would be at the time. I knew I needed something more.
After some more discussion with my supervisor, I was referred to our department’s psychologist. And here’s where everything shifted for me. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A relief, but also confusion. Now what? The psychologist recommended using Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to work through what I was feeling. Two sessions later, I was able to process what I was feeling and why I was feeling it. I was still left with a “now what” feeling. How could I set myself up for success to have a healthy, lasting career? Did I still want to have a career in 9-1-1, though?
I should mention that I had already quit dispatching once. For a whole month. I was lured by the temptation of weekends off and holidays with family instead of work family. Now, I am fairly certain I was burned out but didn’t recognize the symptoms. It was easier to leave and ignore any bad feelings, than actually process and deal with those feelings. What I learned during that short month was dispatching is fulfilling work. It can even be fun at times. And while that time off is tempting, I wanted to be with my work family instead. So when I felt myself looking for other jobs, and even interviewing for some, I realized I had to focus inward.
At this point in my career, I felt sure I knew how to take care of myself, after all I had been to one eight-hour compassion fatigue class. Eating well, sleeping well, exercising were the only recommendations I can remember from that class. These are all good things to do all of the time for everyone, but what else can we do for ourselves to ensure success?
The psychologist recommended a class to me that another peer support team member had taken and enjoyed. I thought it wouldn’t hurt to try something different, something not even dispatch-related, and see what happened. After reading about the class and getting support from my agency to take the class, I signed up. The teacher emailed us a few weeks before the class and asked if we had any experience with meditation. I didn’t think anything of it and replied that I had no experience with it.
One of the first things we did during that class was meditate. The last thing we did was meditate. I quickly realized this class was going to be different. Over the next eight weeks, for two hours each class, we would meditate, have group discussions, have small group exercises (so fun for the introverted dispatcher), and learn about science related to the theme of the class – compassion.
There are other classes focused on compassion and meditation, but the one I took was developed at Stanford University in 2009. According to the Compassion Institute™, “the class offers insights and techniques from psychology, neuroscience, and contemplative practice. The course integrates evidence-based meditation techniques, interactive discussions, and lectures as well as real-world exercises to put learning in to practice.”
In the class, Compassion Cultivation Training© (CCT), we use this as the definition for compassion: recognize there is suffering, have empathy for that suffering, have the motivation to want to relieve that suffering and doing something to relieve that suffering. I’m not sure there is a better definition for compassion, or for dispatching. Commonly, compassion is defined as “to suffer with”.
Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, or the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. So using CCT’s definition we can see that every day, as dispatchers, we recognize there is suffering (and suffering here is also a different definition – it’s much more broad, not limited to only suffering that is easily recognizable, like chronic illness or the loss of a loved one) and we want to do something to alleviate that suffering, which we can do in a myriad of ways – dispatching a call, just listening, etc.
After taking CCT, we say it’s really our empathy that gets fatigued, not our compassion. Our compassion is limitless, like pouring water into a glass but the glass never gets full. In contrast, our empathy can get drained fairly quickly. Using the above definition of compassion, I can feel empathy for someone (feeling what they feel), but have compassion (to want to alleviate their suffering). This is what I needed. This made me understand that I can love my job, but still have that job drain me. CCT gave me the tools and resources to combat that “drained” feeling.
To say that the class transformed me as a human would be an understatement. It seemed the more I learned about compassion, the more I needed to learn about topics related to it. I wanted and needed to learn about happiness, positivity, sleep, psychology, Buddhist philosophy, kindness, forgiveness, active compassion – it’s a good thing I love to read. CCT influenced me so profoundly that I decided to become a teacher to be able to spread compassion to the group of people that can so often be overlooked – other dispatchers. Instead of recommending the class to others, I would just tell them to take a class with me.
CCT has taught me, or depending on the day, has reminded me of a couple of things. It reminded me to take my time processing my feelings – why was I angry or frustrated? How can I work through those feelings? It reminded me that I will mess up, but messing up is a part of life. Yes, I want to be 100% perfect, 100% of the time. But we all know that is not feasible, so how can I handle failure in a more graceful way? It reminded me to be patient with myself when I make mistakes and to remember to use those mistakes to learn and grow. Lastly, it reminded me to be patient with others if they are upset with me for things that I cannot control (well, that sounds a lot like dispatching, too).
I knew CCT was effective when a family member told me I seemed different. That made me feel a little sheepish for being, how shall I say it, a less than stellar person. It also made me feel good that the work I had been putting in to myself was noticeable and affected those around me. I also knew it was working when I was able to communicate with difficult callers in a more effective way. The power of being able to listen to someone scream at you because they are upset, but to respond with empathy and compassion instead of frustration is powerful.
In January of this year, I had the opportunity to attend NENA’s Critical Issues Forum. It was so refreshing to see so many people have an interest in health and wellness. It took what I learned and expanded it. My reading list grew exponentially. I fell so in love with everything that I learned over the past couple of years, that I had to share it with my partners. I now send out monthly health and wellness newsletters to them. A lot of the topics I send to them are what I learned at the Critical Issues Forum. I thoroughly enjoy researching these topics more. I hope they feel the same about reading them.
As I reflect on the past couple of years, I realize that I have to fight for myself. It wasn’t enough for me to take just one class that didn’t wholly address burnout. It wasn’t enough to feel better after PTSD treatment. It wasn’t enough to take a CCT class. It’s not enough now to simply send a newsletter every month. I must continue to fight for myself and my mental health. And, if we want our partners to be successful, we must teach them to fight for themselves. I make sure to talk about mental health when I’m training a new dispatcher. We talk about what we might experience, or not experience, when we take a difficult call. I talk about difficulties I have dealing with mental health at work. I am working to normalize talking about mental health at work.
At least once a day, I start a sentence with “when I started dispatching.” I’ve been doing this for 13 years and a lot has changed since then. And I’m so excited to see what positive changes we can continue to make together.
About the Author
Erica Snyder, ENP, is a Communications Specialist at the Loveland Emergency Communications Center in Loveland, CO. She is a trainer, EMD-Q, ENP, certified CCT Instructor, and most recently, a co-host on the podcast How To: 911. Erica enjoys educating the public in person, as well, and can be seen at the local farmers markets or giving presentations. She’d always rather be reading, but will happily put down a book to spend time with friends or family, specifically her two awesome nephews.