First responder resiliency program about ‘normal reaction to a very abnormal situation’

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AURORA | For paramedic Matt Concialdi, it wasn’t the especially gory calls that kept him up at night.

From left, Matt Concialdi, paramedic and teacher in the Trauma Resiliency Course, Mike Grill, director of pre hospital services and co-writer of the course, and Bekah Blake, emergency room nurse who took the course pose in an operating room on Friday Feb. 26, 2016 at Parker Adventist Hospital. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora SentinelThose ones —  the “night of the living dead” cases, as he calls them — didn’t stick in his head like some of the less-graphic but more-personal cases.

There was one when a man named David with a rare and terminal blood disorder grabbed Concialdi by his collar and pleaded with him not to let him die. Or the especially-friendly veteran who insisted he was fine and kept apologizing for wasting the ambulance crew’s time, despite having terminal blood clots.

“Most of the calls that impacted me happened when I had that connection with the family, when I heard that backstory,” he said.

And it was those calls and those stories that woke him in the middle of the night, or that he couldn’t get out of his head when he tried to go to sleep.

For the last few years, a program run by Centura Health and the Colorado Department of Health has aimed to give emergency responders — including paramedics, hospital staff and others — the skills to avoid those sorts of struggles. Mike Grill, Centura’s EMS director and one of the course’s designers and instructors, said the course aims to “immunize” emergency responders from post traumatic stress.

“What we’re trying to do here is keep us alive and keep us happy and give us the tools that we need to cope with this stuff,” Grill said.

While only between 1 percent and 3 percent of the population at large have post traumatic stress, Grill said that figure jumps to 10 percent and even 20 percent among emergency responders, Grill said.

“And we think it’s under-reported,” he said.

The First Responder Resiliency program teaches responders over several hours how to be more resilient, and follows up with a few weeks later to see if the changes are taking hold.

In surveys, Grill said the people who take the course report feeling much more resilient, sleeping better and being able to cope with some of the horrors they see better than before the course.

One of the things the course does is teach first responders that it’s okay to be bothered by what they see, lilrill said.

While they know who to call if their car breaks down, or if their home needs repair, Grill said they don’t have the support network in place for when they are struggling emotionally.

“We want them to be able to say, ‘I’m having a normal reaction to a very abnormal situation,’” he said.

Concialdi, who has been a paramedic for more than 15 years, first took the class in 2013 and now teaches it to other emergency responders. He said it is especially helpful for veteran paramedics like him who come from a generation that is more reluctant to discuss the more-difficult elements of the job.

Bekah Blake, an ER nurse at Parker Adventist Hospital, took the course just a few weeks ago.

“It’s really taught me how to step back and take a second and look at things introspectively,” she said.

But beyond that, Blake said the course showed her how to be on the lookout for signs of distress in her coworkers, something that is especially tough with ER staff.

“As emergency response personnel, they are trained to hide how they feel,” she said.

Now, Blake said, if she sees something as subtle as the dart of an eye from a fellow nurse, she feels comfortable asking them if they are ok.From left, Matt Concialdi, paramedic and teacher in the Trauma Resiliency Course, Mike Grill, director of pre hospital services and co-writer of the course, and Bekah Blake, emergency room nurse who took the course pose in an operating room on Friday Feb. 26, 2016 at Parker Adventist Hospital. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

Grill said the course also brings in emergency responders’ family and friends — in Blake’s case her mother attended part of the course with her — so those people can serve as a support network, too.

In the long run, Grill said, he hopes the course can help Centura and other hospitals keep employees who might otherwise get burned out.

“We like to hang on to our best employees so turn over is a pretty big issue,” he said.

To learn more about the course, visit www.centura.org and search for ‘resiliency.’