Breaking the news of the death of a loved one is never easy, but for paramedics it's becoming an increasingly important part of their job.
A new made-in-B.C. course being rolled out this fall is arming local paramedics with skills to share the tragic news meaningfully and compassionately.
"Paramedics, when they join the ambulance service, they want to fix things," said paramedic and trainer Doug Hong, who co-created the Dealing with Death and Dying course for the B.C. Ambulance Service. "But in this situation it goes against the grain of the paramedics to have to deal with stuff like this because they can't fix it."
Hong, along with Elizabeth Wilson-Tagoe, spent a year putting together the four-hour course, which includes tips on how to do the little things right and gives those taking the class a chance to role play in different scenarios.
"We give them scenarios of the most difficult messages you have to deliver, one of them is having to tell a parent that their son or daughter has died," Hong, who hails from Wells and began his career working in Quesnel, said in a phone interview from Vancouver.
Prince George basic life support paramedic Lucien Girard is one of the local facilitators who helps put on the training sessions in the region. He said the skills are necessary because new protocols see paramedics doing more CPR on scene, rather than immediately whisking patients to the hospital. The method has proven to lead to better outcomes for the patients - but in cases where it doesn't work, it's often paramedics who are the first line of communication with family members.
"We had to provide them with some skills with how do you talk to the next of kin in those situations where their family members are dead," he said. "For a lot of people that was uncomfortable not having formal training."
Girard said in small, rural and remote areas, the training is even that much more important because often the paramedics know the family members.
There are no exact figures on how often paramedics have to provide the news of a death to family members, but in the last fiscal year the ambulance service had about 2,400 patients die outside of hospital out of close to 486,000 total calls. That works out to about one out of every 200 cases.
The course teaches the paramedics how to manage the call and build a relationship with the family throughout the call.
In the event of a death, the participants learn about the importance of body language and tone of voice. Other tips to becoming more approachable is to turn off the radio and allow for quiet time, if needed. The course also includes a section on communicating with physicians.
Both Hong and Girard said a lot of skills come naturally to people, but having the formal training gives the paramedics more confidence they're dealing with the emotional situations in the best way possible.
"If you're coming from the heart, you're going to get it right," Girard said. "We're just giving you some tools and some procedures to follow to make it that much easier."
Hong and Wilson-Tagoe also got help from paramedic trainer Colin Fitzpatrick as well as representatives from Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Alberta Health Services in developing the course. Hong said people in Alberta as well as other parts of the country have already begun asking about the possibility of exporting the course.
Girard has run about six courses in the region, but said there's still more paramedics in Prince George who need to be trained. Hong said the goal is to have all basic life support paramedics in B.C. go through the course by this spring.