“What’s Your Worst Call?”

Katie Paulson, Quality and Training Specialist, Allina Health, St. Paul, Minnesota (USA)

What we do for a living always comes up. It’s how we gauge strangers, their value, their worth, their knowledge, their understanding, or a common language. We all do it. A rite of passage at every party, after every introduction, barely past the handshake.

They grin and ask, “What’s your worst call?”

Inside we cringe, our duck feet paddling like mad, hidden below the deceivingly calm surface. Irritated this is the measure people use to make us “prove” our legitimacy. Irritated we continue to play along.

We deflect.

We lie.

We have our token response ready to go.

It’s a funny story usually, something wildly bizarre. A redirect really.

Or it’s that “other” call, the one that’s kinda bad but not so bad it haunts. A “B+” bad call.

One guy kept pushing and wouldn’t stop. I let him have it. Raw. Unfiltered. The screams of burning children, the wild eyes of the gasping lady as she died, the stiffly swinging hanging body, the 16-year-old-girl’s perfect pink pedicure on her mangled feet.

He got mad, saying I took it too far. Me? I did?

Later, alone, these calls haunt us silently, from the safe place we’ve stored them, deep in the back closet in the unmarked box we rarely open but always know is there. Part of me is frozen into each of those moments. The same part of me that’s frozen into the days before and after my mom died when I was 25, days before my birthday. I’ll never forget her death, and I’ll never forget those calls, all of it carefully packed into that box.

I didn’t think I had PTSD. I slept hard, I didn’t have nightmares, I drank an occasional cocktail, I had lots of close friends, I tried to be a good parent, I worked hard for a happy marriage, I was successful in my job, I led a full and busy life. It got to be that when ugly, nasty calls came through for review, I cruised right through them and on to the next one. New calltakers shook with sobs in my office and my heart ached for them, but I didn’t have any more tears. I told myself this edge just meant I was good at my job, seasoned, emotionally efficient. Years of being a fire kid, a fire wife, working in an ER, an ambulance, in and alongside dispatch had seared my reactions into a taut wall of muscle memory. Yet looking back I was hypervigilant about co-sleeping babies, four-wheelers, motorcycles, burns, farm machinery, crockpots, and structure fires. A bunch of over-the-top made-up rules I demanded adherence to in a desperate attempt to protect my family from repeating other people’s nightmares. Subtly interlinked, yet never consciously realized. My vice? I found refuge in lunch and dinner and snacks before, between, and after. I gained weight, but who doesn’t in their late 30s in a stressful, sedentary job after having a few kids? Over time my hobbies slipped away as I dedicated more and more time to work and family, letting the me I used to know fade into the chaos.

Then came the call that shattered me into a million tiny pieces. The one that took everything I had to make it through. The one that closed the door on EMS, ripping me from my identity, my income, my friends, myself. My whole world crashed at that moment. I had multiple nightmares every night, waking up panicked, sweating, and exhausted. I couldn’t breathe, focus, or sleep. I yelled at my kids. I hid in my bed. I cried and sobbed and stared off into space. I heard their voice crack. I saw their face and heard the gasps. I avoided my deck, my laptop, my favorite coat emblazoned with our work logo. I avoided friends and family, avoided work, and avoided feeling. I hid in household busyness, walks, and midday naps. I tried to read and write but my mind wandered. I scrolled mindlessly for hours. I tried to avoid my birthday, again.

I sat numb and paralyzed as my toddler walked too close to the bonfire; friends grabbed him. I silently watched it happen, frozen, then shook with anxiety after. He was fine, but I wasn’t.

I saw a counselor, talked to a chaplain, saw a psychologist … the nightmares persisted. I cracked a tooth grinding in my sleep. I developed a breast lump. I lost weight, some purposely, some not.

I still don’t know why it was that call that did it. I may never know.

I’m trying to move on. Applying for workers comp, different jobs, taking classes, career coaching, and self-care. The mammogram came back clear. I’ve gingerly stepped back into social circles and prepped my friends via text ahead of time. I finally reached out to work friends and found solace in their support, deep understanding, and even the dark humor we’ve always shared. I miss those jokers.

We can joke about anything until the one call that hurts. That one is off-limits and everyone knows it. The air gets heavy, the room gets serious, the tone is all business. An electrical charge of respect is present.

Silence lingers until someone bravely cracks a joke (about something CLEARLY UNRELATED). A quick scan, and then everyone laughs a little too loud. Waves of relief. And the banter resumes. It’s OK, we’re back. We’re OK.

Why we tread so carefully to protect a stranger from the answer to their own ignorant request, or their feelings, when they’ve just gutted us bare, seems so bizarre for such a strong-minded group. Maybe it’s because we pick up the pieces for a living. We maintain control in uncontrollable moments, including our own. We are groomed to provide comfort at all costs.

Not anymore.

I’m facing it head-on now: “I have PTSD, and it’s hard for me to talk about.”

I don’t owe anyone a story at my expense.

I’m calling it out like I call out suicidal thoughts and scene safety. Crisp and clear with boundaries intact.

Maybe being honest will stop them from asking the next person they meet. Maybe if we were all honest we could shift this generation and help the next one.

All I owe is marking the path I’ve already worn bare through these landmines. That and a well-timed joke when I reach the end, just to say I made it. I’m OK.

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