A Port Elizabeth writer’s book draws attention to the plight of paramedics with post-traumatic stress disorder as “people deserve to know the story behind the red lights”.
Former paramedic Jessica Beale-Roberts left the profession 10 years ago due to her own post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by her harrowing experiences working the streets in Pretoria.
“I decided to leave because of my mental health. I was really passionate about it but long-term I knew it would be very difficult to continue,” said Beale-Roberts, who with her husband – a former policeman who now works in EMS – moved to Port Elizabeth five years ago.
They live in Bridgemead and she is a full-time freelance writer.
Paramedic Girl is her first book.
“When I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder it wasn’t something that paramedics talk about.
“Now there is more help for paramedics. If one of the crew has a hectic call, they actually have a therapist who will come and debrief. It’s that first step.”
People who have lived through shocking, scary, or dangerous events are more liable to develop PTSD than others and, after several years on-call as a paramedic, Beale-Roberts saw more than her share of those.
“It’s hectic out there for paramedics, especially in South Africa with all our violence and crime.
“Most of the time it is dangerous and yes, we did get into hairy situations.”
As she pertinently puts it, “You are usually meeting people on the worst day of their life”.
Although Beale-Roberts developed PTSD while in the thick of working as a paramedic, sometimes it only surfaces years after the initial trauma.
PTSD patients may suffer flashbacks, nightmares, feelings of depression, anger, anxiety, guilt or shame.
Among a range of possible symptoms, sometimes they cannot sleep, are startled easily or engage in self-destructive behaviour.
As the symptoms can be triggered off at any time, even when the initial stressor is far in the past, PTSD can be incredibly restrictive on a normal lifestyle.
“I knew something was bothering me but I couldn’t put words to it.
“It started just with apathy, emotional exhaustion, and getting irritated with the patients and people around me,” Beale-Roberts said.
“I also had a lot of anger bubbling under the surface, and I’m not an angry person.
“I didn’t want to admit there was anything wrong with me but eventually I went to see my GP and he referred me to a psychologist who then referred me to a psychiatrist who specialised in post-traumatic stress disorder.”
“I don’t have my symptoms anymore, like the nightmares and flashbacks, rage and depression but I think that writing the book also helped me.
“I had to make sense of what had happened and move on.’’
She believes many in the emergency health field suffer from PTSD and other related conditions.
“I’m not sure of the statistics but I think it goes undiagnosed.
“We are still battling the stigma of mental illness and although paramedics are meant to be trustworthy they are just real people.
“We train them to be paramedics but we don’t train them for what could happen emotionally to them.
“What signs should we be looking out for? What do you do if you experience something like that?”
“For a paramedic to come forward and say ‘I’m not coping’ that could be the end of their career.
“There is still the perception that it only happens to weak people.”
Although she started writing Paramedic Girl just after leaving the ambulance service, she only finished it last year, self-publishing in December last year.
“I had written it more for myself as I was afraid of what people would think of me and what they might say.”
However, friends and family urged her to share it more widely.
“They said ‘you have to tell this story’ and in the end I wanted to do it not only for myself but also for all the paramedics who couldn’t tell their stories.”
As she pertinently puts it: “You are usually meeting people on the worst day of their life. I’ve had training but I can’t imagine what it would be like if your loved one was lying there and you literally do not know what to do.”
However, Paramedic Girl is not all about trauma, and there are slices of humour and happiness in its pages.
“It wasn’t all bad: you do get a feeling that you are giving back to your community and delivering babies or something positive makes it infinitely worthwhile.”
She now plans to add in a few chapters, as the current version is only 85 pages.
“As an indie author you have to be your own publicist but I’ve got more stories to add to the book.”
Beale-Roberts is a voracious reader, with anything from Dean Koonz to Charles Dickens on her bookshelf at any one time.
“You must read – you learn so much from reading. Hunter S Thomson is a big influence and I love the voice of the narrator in Catcher in the Rye.
“I kept a diary from the age of 10 to 21 and that’s what started me on writing. It helped a lot.
“It’s strange, but I felt like a different person when I finished the book, I have grown such a lot.”
Paramedic Girl is on sale at Amazon. Further information from the author, email@example.com.