Training for EMS focuses on lessening the stigma of addiction
Amy Haskins, director of the Jackson County Health Department and member of QRT, addresses the attendees.
RIPLEY, W.Va. (WV News) — Stigma is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance or person. Certain words automatically have a stigma attached to them. Two of those are addict and addiction.
When they hear those words, many people have a reaction and a picture that comes to mind. This can also apply to those working in the emergency medical services (EMS) field.
And that is why Jackson County EMS employees came together on June 1 at Parchment Valley Conference Center.
Two presenters from Phoenix Training through St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia spent the day with EMTs, paramedics, supervisors and administrators for a program called ‘Addiction and Connection to Treatment.’
This training is the first ever offered in West Virginia.
Funded by the grant that provides the Quick Response Team (QRT) in Jackson County, the trainers provided practical, real-life experiences to the local first responders. Some of those attending were part of the QRT, which attempts to connect those who have had a drug overdose to resources to help with addiction and recovery.
"Who better to speak to us than those who have, between them, 50 years of experience in the field?" Ashley Davis, Jackson County EMS administrative assistant and EMT, said of the two presenters.
What many EMS workers face is fatigue.
"How do we deal with the stress of repetition of the cases we see?" Troy Bain, EMS director, asked. "They are often the same people or the same locations. How do we get the mindset that each time should be treated like the first time?"
When the opportunity came to have presenters, Steve Forzato and Bryan McCauley, come, Bain said he and his QRT members jumped at the chance.
"What impressed me," Davis said, "was that Bryan is a recovering drug addict. He was speaking to us from real-life experience and he opened our eyes to a different perspective. He showed what it was like from the addict's side, how difficult it was."
One aspect that impressed paramedic Katie Perry was the empathy that the presenters stressed. She said that seeing ways that she and those she serves are similar was something she had not thought about before.
"I think we all have things that we battle," she said. "Being able to relate a little better to those who have just had an episode, being able to look them in the eye may make it easier for them to trust us more. Sometimes we feel like we’ve hit rock bottom. These people live there every day."
It's not a question of giving medical care on these drug incident calls. That level of professionalism and skill is always high. Bain said it falls more in the ‘compassion fatigue’. And that is where this training and some of the techniques shared came into play.
Alison Harmon, an EMT, said she has learned that what is said in the course of dealing with someone who has overdosed can make an impact.
"In the case of known opioid overdose, we can give Narcan which counteracts the drugs’ effects, but how we talk to them is almost as important," she said. "We always give them or someone with them the QRT card so they can reach out for help, but they have to believe and trust us too."
Many things she heard at the training made an impression, but one stood out to Harmon.
"He said that these people are going through struggles, sometimes very private," she said. "They haven't got people on their side sometimes and no one to guide them. That really hit me."
The scientific side was another focus of the training. The chemical addiction that the body develops is a factor that is sometimes hard to remember or accept.
Davis says she is a visual learner and seeing illustrations of the brain before and during addition was startling. But what was most striking was the recovery the brain can make if addiction is turned around.
"There is hope," Davis said. "These are not lost causes."
And that is one of the things that both Bain and Shawn McKenna, paramedic and head of the EMS training department, wanted their team to see.
"The caregiver fatigue that our people can face is real," McKenna said. "It was also important for them to see all of the leaders in the department attending this training as well. Administrators, shift commanders, we all were there. We have to lead by example. One phrase used stayed with me, ‘the speed of the leader affects the speed of the pack.’ And that is very true."
Taking care of others is the focus of every member of emergency services. But taking care of their own mental and emotional health is vital too. That is a point that the presenters made clear. And that is one that Bain, McKenna and Davis say is something they want to see more of in their team.
"Being self-aware of your mental health, having an outlet outside the job is vitally important," Davis said. "We see the worst of the worst situations and every EMS loses employees because they don't take care of themselves or the department doesn't take care of them. Turnover is high."
Each of the five has a way to decompress but it's taken some effort to devote time.
Davis works out at the gym, Perry loves to fish and hunt, McKenna runs, Bain kayaks and gets into nature, while Harmon relies on time with family, especially her one-year-old son.
Perry and Harmon said that Jackson County EMS is the best in the mental health area. Perry said that nowhere she worked previously showed this care and concern for their workers.
And there will be more training throughout the year. McKenna and Bain said they are constantly looking for ways to encourage and advance knowledge. Bain pointed out that the Jackson County Commission has been very supportive of any requests made in that area.
Bain said he has already seen positive results from the most recent learning opportunity.
"I could see a difference in the room as the morning went on," he said. "Interest didn't wane, there was engagement. We also got a few more asking to be part of the QRT which was very encouraging. I think our people came away looking at addiction a bit differently, lessening the stigma associated. I know I came aware refreshed and energized."
There are plans to offer the session again in the fall for other first responders, such as police and firefighters, along with the faith-based community.
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