I’m still reeling from the death of my very close friend, Laura Kay, MD -- a talented EMS physician and local EMS medical director. She took her life after hearing bad news about a custody hearing with her ex-husband. She walked out of an EMS dispatch class she was teaching at a local fire department after an e-mail from her domestic relations attorney. She drove her EMS medical director truck up to a high-altitude lake, hiked to a spot with a beautiful view, sat down in the shadow of the northern New Mexico mountains and shot herself.
I first met Laura when she was one of my husband’s emergency medicine residents almost 15 years ago. We hit it off and became good friends. She was young, beautiful, talented, married to a paramedic and pregnant with her first child. As the years went on, we shared the sorts of things women share as minorities in a field that has never fully accepted us. Politics, how you deal with nurses who are happy to serve a male physician but not a female, politics, keeping your weight down, politics, law, writing good EMS pieces, politics. She had a second child shortly before her marriage ended. She was my “go to” person when I finished a big trial. I helped her with EMS medical director contracts. We shared Thanksgivings, Christmases, warm summer nights and ski days.
It was difficult for her when her marriage ended. She loved her kids more than anything, but found herself conflicted between personal and professional commitments. She was routinely disappointed with a medical system that wanted her to engage a stopwatch when she went to see a patient and to time her patient interactions. She was one of the most intense patient-care advocates I’ve ever come across, and she tirelessly fought with a medical system fraught with laziness and a preoccupation with making money. Laura was never the best with money, and she had a hard time making ends meet with child support payments. She found a great stress outlet in whitewater kayaking and spent much of her free time on the narrow and foamy northern New Mexico rivers, challenged by learning to navigate them.
Laura ultimately felt that there was nothing for her, personally or professionally, in New Mexico, and had just signed on with a large emergency medicine group in Kansas City, Mo., where she grew up and attended medical school. She was enthusiastic about practicing in another state—a place with far more resources than New Mexico—and about connecting with a doctor who had mentored her during her training. Her parents lived there, and she wanted to be closer to her family. She desperately tried to obtain a custody arrangement that would allow her to have her children part of the time.
This past month JEMS ran a piece on suicide (“Suicides Affect Patients & Providers”) that hit me squarely between the eyes: EMS people see too much and often don’t process it well. We spend so much time taking care of others that sometimes we forget to take care of ourselves. The hours we work, the pain and suffering we see, the lack of exercise we get, the regular sleep patterns we miss out on, and the irregular eating that we subject our bodies to ultimately take a toll.
The author of the JEMS article, Wayne Zygowicz, BA, EFO, EMT-P, had suffered through the suicide of a close friend and wondered what he could have done differently. I wonder today if I could’ve made a difference. Why didn’t Laura call me? Would I have been too busy to have dinner with her? What could I have done to change the trajectory? How could I have failed to see that my close friend was in desperate trouble?
She left a long and detailed note that indicated her suicide had been in the planning stages for some time. I hope my dear friend has found peace at last.
I’m struggling with processing her untimely death. Someone was talking about peaches the other day, and it sent me to tears because Laura had a peach tree that produced an abundance of fat, juicy peaches just about the same time that the green chili came in. Each year, she would give me peaches and I would roast, bag and freeze my chilis roasted, giving them to her. It was a fall harvest swap we never missed.
I’m grateful to have another close friend who is a mental health provider. She took me on a hike and talked to me about how to process the untimely death of a close friend by their own hand. It takes time, she told me. We can’t do what we EMS people do and just set it aside and move on. If it matters, it can’t be dispatched overnight.