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Life and Death on the Job – Part 2 

Catherine Pegram

We all have stress at work sometimes, but for most of us, someone’s life doesn’t depend on what we do – or don’t do. That’s not the case with law enforcement officers, emergency crews or hospital staff.Death is part of their day-to-day life. And learning how to cope with it becomes an essential job skill.Dr. Amy Movius, who specializes in pediatric critical care, says dealing with death on the job doesn’t mean closing off her feelings.”It’s not an evil thing, it can be a tragic thing, an incredibly sad thing. There’s lots of grief and loss and being open to the awfulness of it – and continuing to provide what we’re there to provide in those circumstances.”Movius says it’s something she’s learned through the last 17 years of work, not in a course in medical school. Sargeant Robin Parker with the Maine State Police says “In the academy, they equip us – they give us a gun and they teach us extensively how to use it. Not a lot is focused on the physical effects and cognitive effects of stress.”Parker says on-the-job experiences aren’t the only way troopers and other emergency responders learn to cope with death. In 2004, the state police formed a critical incident debriefing team – a peer support group called together after horrific events to help those who responded, like the case of a car crash in Carmel, that killed three women and four children on Mother’s Day in 2004.”We want to externalize anything that they’re thinking – that they’ve experienced during the traumatic event. Then we want them to know what they’re experiencing is normal. Then we want kind of a teaching phase – we want to give them some things to use to cope.”Staff at Eastern Maine Medical center in Bangor also organize debriefings after particularly tragic deaths.Critical care nurse manager Sue Williams says it makes a difference.”We will often get together with social workers. Sometimes we have people from Acadia Hospital come over and speak with the nurses to do a little counseling, do a little debriefing, just to let everybody get their feelings out.”Dr. John Lorenz, a forensic psychologist, says, “What we believe now from scientific research is that exposure to those events through remembering and talking it over helps to normalize it and helps people to develop their own skills for coping.”Lorenz says without those skills, emergency responders are at risk for post traumatic stress disorder.For Sargeant Paul Edwards, a blood splatter specialist with the Bangor police department, one way he copes is knowing his work at a murder scene is part of a bigger picture.”I can’t discard the smell and the look and sometimes getting dirty but that’s fine. I know I’m doing a job for somebody else that’s hopefully going to find the person responsible for this case.”Working so closely with death has also helped him and others like him appreciate life.As Williams puts it, “You want to go out and life life to the fullest and enjoy it, do everything you want to do. and it really brings us all in this field closer to a more fulfilling life, because we see both ends of the spectrum.”Dr. Lorenz says a big concern for emergency responders is how often they have to face death and the cumulative effect that can have on their mental health. He believes in some cases, there should be time limits on how long a person can work in such high pressure positions.