Mark King listened to people’s worst days, nearly every day. He’d answer over a hundred 911 calls in a 12-hour shift: the calm, reassuring voice amidst chaos. Yet no amount of training, protocol, or experience prepared him to respond to his own mother’s emergency call, where she’d anxiously describe her husband’s — King’s father’s — having a heart attack.
It’s early August 2006. King agrees to work the night shift at the Vancouver Dispatch Office. He’s been working here just over a year after working as a paramedic for seven years — three years in southern Vancouver and four in Whistler. King has come to learn the only guarantee of a shift is that each is unpredictable. The night is abnormally busy, in part because they’re understaffed — King is one of two call takers, working alongside four dispatchers and a supervisor, to service lower mainland Vancouver’s 2.5 million population. On a normal shift, there would be eight call takers.
King sits in front of four screens, taking in an unsettling minute of silence. He scans the call queue, assessing how long callers have waited and which ones to call back to ask if their situations have changed. He sees his partner just answered a call from Port Moody, a small suburb of Vancouver with a population of 20,000. He clicks the call details and magnifies the map. It dawns on him it’s the address of his parents’ house, the house he grew up in.
“A 58-year-old man with chest pains” notes the report.
King wonders what 58-year-old would be at his parents’ place.
But there is no time for denial.
It is his dad.
King dials his parents’ house. His mother doesn’t linger on the coincidence of speaking to her son at work. She’s focused entirely on her husband, who is experiencing crushing chest pains. He knows the fire department will arrive first but are still a few minutes away. His eyes follow the paramedic’s circuitous route on his computer screen. They’re coming from a distance, and the roads are as congested as the dispatch lines.
He still doesn’t know for sure whether his father is alive or not. All he can do is stay on the phone.
Stress is unavoidable — a universal reminder that we’re all vulnerable human beings. The ability to feel comes with great emotional (and often physical) weight, and we especially feel it in moments of uncertainty when we’re not sure what to do next.
For King and other first responders, they sign up for stress. As vital delegators, they deal with all of our overwhelming distress (whether real or an abuse of the system) on top of their own anxieties.
Unlike paramedics, 911 dispatchers cannot engage all senses to assess a situation first-hand. A dispatcher’s perspective is incredibly limited, only able to interpret what they are being told (no matter wishing they could reach through the phone to help). A “good enough” mentality doesn’t cut it when accuracy and efficiency directly impact the outcome. It’s recommended, if not necessary, for all first responders to separate their personal and professional lives, at least as much as possible. It’s extremely difficult to be emotionally invested in a situation and provide clear-headed support and service. This detachment and act of compartmentalization offers a temporary escape from human emotion; it lessens the burden of caring.
But sometimes this separation isn’t possible. Almost always, when you least expect it — as was the case for King — your personal and professional worlds can come crashing together, with you stuck dead in the centre.
Despite ample education, practice dealing with every conceivable scenario, the thousands of calls that he’s managed without incident, and the careful implementation of stress management strategies, King is still overwhelmed with stress. He has to make sense of his conflicting instincts: to help the many others who also need his assistance (be the dispatcher) or to worry (be the son).
King’s father was extremely lucky. King arrived at the Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster at the same time as the ambulance. His father was rushed to the Cardiac Cath Lab, and a coronary stent was surgically inserted, restoring blood flow through his previously narrow or blocked artery. He’s had no lasting effects from that evening.
Stress tests our rationality and reasoning, and perhaps even more so our intuition, emotional intelligence, and our empathy. In the struggle to make sense of everything — deciding what to think or what to do next — we’re in a way asking ourselves some of the hardest and most human questions: What are your priorities? What do you care about? What are you prepared to do?
So whether you’re feeling unbearable pressure, blissfully pulling through, or something in between, remember that stress makes us human. And no matter what, it’s coming for you. How are you going to deal with it?
For the past 18 years, Mark King has worked in numerous EMS front-line and leadership positions. Following his role as a paramedic and in dispatch operations, King went on to lead the development of a triage protocol for interfacility transfer in B.C. In 2016, he transitioned into the hospital setting and currently leads the Protection Services department of Island Health in Victoria.