Commentary, Exclusives

EMS LawLine: A New You in 2020!

Christie Mellott

Happy New Year! As we usher in another year, we have a suggestion for a very important resolution that we want each of you to consider for 2020: Take better care of yourself! We are not just talking about losing weight, going to the gym or working out more often — or even eating better. While those are all fine resolutions, we think it much more effective to focus on a more comprehensive picture: improving both your physical and mental well-being.   

Lawyers And EMS Professionals Have A Lot in Common 

I know what you are thinking: What does a lawyer know about any of this? Here is what I do know: EMS providers and lawyers have a lot more in common than you may think. It is each of our jobs to “absorb” everyone’s bad days and try to make them better for the people that need our help. As a lawyer for over 20 years, I can tell you that absorbing 20 years’ worth of people’s bad days takes a toll. As an EMS provider, especially as a “seasoned” EMS provider, it can easily take an equally great toll. Think of this as advice from a fellow “absorber of extreme stress” who has had to learn what does and does not work to relieve stress.  

What are you doing to relieve this stress? Some of you are working two or three jobs and may feel that you don’t have any meaningful time to relieve stress. Others of you may be overindulging in too many of a few of our favorite comfort foods or drinks. Others may be in denial that they even need to have a healthy habit to relieve the stress. 

Relieving Stress Need Not Be Complicated 

Take it from a fellow stress sufferer: You need to have a healthy way to relieve stress. And it need not be complicated or physically strenuous. I like walking or running outside while listening to my favorite music. You may like painting, reading, singing, acting, plants, working with children, people with disabilities, the elderly or any number of other hobbies. If you have not found it already, what you might want to do is find something relaxing close by (that does not involve alcohol or “indulgent” foods), and that is non-EMS-related that you can call your “happy place.” Make the time to visit your “happy place” regularly – like at least several times a week and at least a half-hour at a time.  

If you must work two jobs, perhaps you can make your second job your “happy place.” Far too often we simply look for another part time EMS job, and that only compounds the problem. For example, if you like plants, then maybe get a part-time job at a flower shop – make that part-time job something outside of EMS that you enjoy or want to explore! The point is that all of us with stressful jobs need a way to release the “toxins” we are absorbing on behalf of the people we help. If all you are doing is simply absorbing more and more toxins – without a method to occasionally purge them – this may lead to a slow (or not-so-slow) descent into burnout. 

Burnout Can Make Us Incapable of Being Compassionate 

If you are burned out or even beginning to feel burned out, you lose not just the ability but also the capability of truly providing the compassionate care for the patients that need you – you become apathetic. For example, the patient that calls you regularly for what you see as a minor issue that does not require an ambulance still requires kindness and compassion. You can assist her to the help she might need (which might be anything from a referral to community paramedicine to a mental health evaluation or social service agency). The point is that this is still a human being in distress and if you are burned out, or burning out, you might improperly judge her and see this patient as simply a waste of your valuable time. 

Burnout Leads to Liability 

Why is this important from a legal perspective? Because treating patients as an “interruption in our day” or a “waste of our time” means that you are likely to make a medical mistake that could result in a lawsuit against your agency as well as you personally. We could share many a war story with you on this topic, as poor attitude and negative personal behaviors are the root cause of most negligence lawsuits. (See “They Don’t Sue You if They Like You,” JEMS, November 2019).  

Here is one case that really highlights why apathy can be so dangerous. In this example, a burned-out paramedic who had been called to a residence three times in one night told the patient to stop calling 911 and wasting his time. The patient stopped calling 911 that night, but was blue, had shallow breathing and a shallow pulse (and had soiled himself) when the home health nurse arrived the next morning. Both the ambulance service and the provider who yelled at the patient to stop wasting his time ended up getting sued by the patient. 

The best thing that we can each do to prevent falling into the trap out of burnout and apathy is to strive to take better care of the people we help by taking better care of ourselves. Paying attention to our physical and mental wellness can help us stay one step ahead of burnout by keeping the stress at manageable levels before those negative behaviors associated with burnout and apathy can begin to emerge. 

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Christie Mellott has been an attorney with Page, Wolfberg & Wirth, LLC for almost 20 years.  She is also an EMT and worked in the healthcare industry prior to law school. She has authored or co-authored numerous articles, blogs, and book chapters on a wide range of EMS employment, compliance, corporate, leadership, and risk management topics.  She can be reached at:  [email protected]  

 For 20 years, PWW has been the nation’s leading EMS industry law firm. PWW attorneys and consultants have decades of hands-on experience providing EMS, managing ambulance services and advising public, private and nonprofit clients across the U.S. PWW helps EMS agencies with reimbursement, compliance, HR, privacy and business issues, and provides training on documentation, liability, leadership, reimbursement and more. Visit the firm’s website at www.pwwemslaw.com.