This blog was written some two hours after the experience, raw and honest (and edited some time afterwards with the added reflections). Writing this experience was intense. This is my off load. Writing has consistently been a safe refuge for me. I have had flashes of the physical accident and that still involves an acute inhale but it feels more gentle. What remains is a busy mind processing every little step and action at the scene and of course concern for the individual that was involved in the accident. I will hope and pray that all of the other racers this day and tomorrow finish their races safely and soundly.
In the moment…
The morning started just as any other, a little overcast with some low clouds – race day. A bowl of oatmeal and off I went. The course, described as technical, was not for me. I have the utmost respect and admiration for the fast racers, all lycrad up, screaming around tight corners in tight groups at blazing speeds. I was there to volunteer for my local cycling club and after two races it became apparent that some corners were harder to negotiate en masse than others.
I was located behind the final corner, before the sprint finish. There was something thrilling watching the racers fly around the course. There was a perpetual feeling of danger, which became fulfilled on that final lap and final corner. I watched as two cyclists crashed down. The sound of a high impact crash is unmistakable and wrenching. Something from my previous life kicked in and recognized their need for help. I began to move towards them. And then it happened. A third cyclist, spinning at full throttle saw the crash and braked. Hard. He fully stopped in an instant and his momentum carried him head first over the handlebars into a contorted, motionless position on the road. I was moving now to a collective gasp from the crowd and an unbidden flurry of personal thoughts based on my experiences as an emergency first-responder as to what I might find. I still see it now and the memory evokes a sudden sucking of air rapidly through my pursed lips and teeth. Sickening! I deliberately move towards the carnage, running through the possibilities in my head: mechanism of injury, airway and C spine, breathing, bleeding, and consciousness. This used to be my usual drill.
Before me lay a stranger who needed my help. In that moment I just acted as I had been trained many years before. The official EMT/paramedics responded and together we helped this cyclist making sure he was safe and stable before being transported to hospital for a more extensive examination. After the medics took over, I trashed my borrowed latex gloves and walked away like it was no big deal, sending good energy to my cycling peer whom I had tended to. I thanked the firefighters, said goodbye to my cycling club friends and walked to my car.
After the moment…
En route it hit me: that was awful. I replayed the crash again and spontaneously teared-up, sad, frustrated and scared. Sitting in my car, I felt lost; I was feeling the psychological and physical aftermath of a traumatic event I had been part of. I had, in effect become my own client. I breathed deeply and wept. I arrived home to an empty house. I removed my bloody clothes and started the washing machine as a sterile load. What remains and why I write is that while the external wound has had pressure applied and is bandaged, what about the damage that cannot be observed from the outside? Where/what is my metaphoric washing machine for the psychological toll of being armor less, vulnerable and knowledgeable? I needed to off load but had a consciousness of traumatizing my audience, my partner and my peers at work. Thankfully, this is not an everyday occurrence for most of us.
At this event, I was a spectator and not clad in the material or psychological armor of my previous profession as a paramedic. The difference for me has always been acute. I have shared many times with peers and friends the difference between arriving on scene after being dispatched all uniformed/armored up, ready to deliver aid and help to the public and in stark contrast being a bystander in civilian clothes enjoying yourself, armor less and witnessing an accident that you respond to real time instantly.
I am glad I responded, ‘naked and vulnerable,’ and hope my injured peer is recovering. This event affected me. Even wearing the aforementioned professional armor, there is a human underneath with their own challenges, there own set of experiences and expectations, and despite training and objectivity I believe there is still a psychological residue that remains. This personal blog attests to this. This is what it means to be human, I suppose. I responded to help someone that needed help in a moment of intense vulnerability. Life is valuable, and we all need a little help sometimes. These events touch us at a deeper level than responding to a 911 call, or what we see on TV. It feels personal and existential to me. I have gratitude for being able to respond in the way I did despite this emotional hangover. The closure comes after I process psychologically and physically with my trusted peers and therapist and have my own experiential card validated and normalized again.
To all those who have helped before thank you. To all of those who will help again and again, thank you.
Christian Billington is an LPC/LMFT candidate. He is passionate about end of life issues, grief and loss, disaster mental health, helping the helpers and the development of training and support to better prepare the emergency services for what they experience in the field. Christian has a modest private practice that can be found here www.patchlanecounseling.com