I loved being a medic but I couldn’t accept the dysfunction in our system

This First Person column was written by Colin Fraser, a former paramedic who lives in Calgary. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I saw my partner at the triage desk shake his head and roll his eyes. 

We were finally at Calgary’s Foothills intensive care unit with a patient who had bounced all the way down Highway 2 from central Alberta with multiple drip infusions and on a ventilator.

The “Ambulance Gods” were at play — those capricious beings paramedics encounter when the chaos builds and everything goes wrong. Already my new practicum student had tripped and disconnected the arterial line into the patient’s arm, forcing us to take a manual blood pressure every few minutes. 

But I could see the finish line. We were at the receiving hospital and this would soon be over. 

Until, of course, I saw that eye roll; this hospital wasn’t taking him.

This was life as a paramedic — constant unpredictability along with life-and-death consequences and the pressure to be perfect every time. Plus, it was the end of what then premier Jason Kenney referred to as Alberta’s “Best Summer Ever,” which was turning into an autumn from hell, fuelled by the Delta wave of the pandemic.

After 13 years, I was nearing the end of what I could take.

“Dude, they aren’t accepting this patient. They say they don’t have a bed for him,” my partner said as he came back to the patient on the stretcher.

Fraser, right, with his team during one of his first years working as a paramedic. The paramedics wore cowboy hats and jeans for the Calgary Stampede, when many people don Western wear across the city. (Submitted by Colin Fraser)

The hospital had told us it was expecting him; now suddenly it wasn’t. I felt despair, rage. But I kept it below the surface. As a paramedic, you don’t break focus. Admit to the chaos, and you’ve lost.

I became a paramedic in 2009 because I and several friends decided landing a four-days-on, four-days-off work rotation would give us the chance to invest time in our post-university bar band. 

You can do a lot with four days off, I thought, and a bit of adrenaline on a company dime didn’t hurt either.

So I worked harder than I ever had to get my 80 per cent test score, willed myself into passing, attended to a few well-executed calls during my practicum placement and was hooked.

But from the first days on the street, it was evident this was going to be a little more than the thrill of success and the satisfaction of helping people.

For one, it was unforgiving. Perfection is obviously the goal because people’s lives are on the line. But I’d watch preceptors demand flawless execution from their students or unleash a barrage of verbal abuse if they failed. Provincial licensing bodies would crush dreams with one slip during testing, one incorrect dose or delay in treatment.

And it didn’t end when I got on with a big city department. That’s where I learned about the so-called Table of Tears — a panel of supervisors created to correct mistakes and improve practice, but so feared it felt like folklore.

Police direct an ambulance past a crowd of people, one of whom is carrying a sign that says Just say no.
Public tensions increased around health care during the pandemic. In this file photo, police direct an ambulance past a protest outside Foothills hospital in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

We were operating in crowded basements, tent encampments, through hailstorms and in the aftermath of violent crime. It felt like no one wanted to understand or empathize with why mistakes happen.

My anxiety grew.

And then there was COVID. That day at the Foothills, I turned to my partner and said, “Did you tell them that we spoke to the doctor here 25 minutes ago?”

A transport physician had given orders to come to this hospital specifically. And the patient was in such critical condition, we’d had multiple drug dose changes enroute to try to save him. He needed a full medical team immediately.

Before my partner could answer, the ventilator alarm sounded; four minutes to no oxygen. After a scramble, a respiratory therapist found us a new tank and escorted us toward the exit.

My student and I waited while my partner fetched the truck for the 10-kilometre trip to the Rockyview Hospital. We tried not to trip on the empty oxygen bottles from previous patients around the buttons for the bay door.

Our patient didn’t notice. He had COVID and was intubated, sedated and paralyzed. 

My student asked if this was normal. I started laughing the kind of laugh that would have triggered a 911 call for a mental health crisis in the night. The stress has inched to the surface.

“I’m just hoping I don’t get chewed out for being at the wrong hospital,” I finally said.

I did everything I could. But the system is overstressed and floundering

A man in full firefighting gear walks toward the camera in the dark. Reflective strips on his suit standout and the fence behind him glows red from the light.
Fraser in his new role as a firefighter. (Submitted by Colin Fraser)

In Alberta, the calls keep coming, every minute or so. Union and management talk about fostering a connection between the front-line staff and management. But when we said more trucks, better training and less hallway time, they said superstations, borderless systems and a computer program for dispatching.

Eventually, I realized that if I wanted to keep doing this job, I had to be OK with this anxiety and dysfunction. And I wasn’t.

I love being a medic, just like many nurses and other health professionals love what they do. Leaving has been one of the biggest heartbreaks of my life because this type of work becomes a calling. 

But my health and my family are more important than any job.

Telling your story

As part of our ongoing partnership with the Calgary Public Library, CBC Calgary is running in-person writing workshops to support community members telling their own stories. These pieces came from a workshop held at the Village Square library in east Calgary.

Check out our workshops and sign up for the waiting list, or pitch your story directly to the national team.

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