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Nurturing Resilience: Mindfulness in EMS Chaplaincy with Russel Meyers

Updated: 4 days ago

Allina Health Minneapolis EMS Chaplain, chaplaincy educator, and author of "Because We Care: A Handbook for Chaplaincy in Emergency Medical Services," Russell Myers, DMin, shares his experiences supporting paramedics following critical incidents. He talks about the analogy one of his chaplaincy students used for chaplaincy work, that of a sherpa, the mountain guides of Nepal and Tibet, in this case, chaplains as "sherpas of the soul." The role of chaplains in supporting people, regardless of their faith or any particular religious orientation or lack thereof, simply meeting people where they are as human beings, the importance of having hobbies and outside interests and connections as public safety professionals, of not getting wrapped up in the job and the public safety world 24/7.






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Nurturing Resilience: Mindfulness in EMS Chaplaincy with Russel Meyers Transcript


Rev. Michael Christie: 

Hello everyone. Welcome to another session on day four of the Global First Responder  Resilient Summit. My name is Reverend Dr. Michael Christie, and I'll be your co-host for this session. Today's theme is spiritual resilience, and with me today is Chaplain Russell Myers. Welcome, Dr. Myers. 


Russel Myers: 

Good to be here. 


Rev. Michael Christie: 

Just before we begin, I just want to read a little bit of your bio, so the audience can get to know who you are. Does that sound okay? 


Russel Myers: 

Yeah. 


Rev. Michael Christie: 

Russel Myers serves as a chaplain for Allina Health EMS. He holds a BA from Ohio State  University and a Doctorate of Ministry from Luther Seminary in St. Paul's. Russ was ordained  by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and is board certified with the Association of  Professional Chaplains. Russ is the author of Because We Care: A Handbook for Chaplaincy in Emergency Medical Services. I welcome and reach you, Chaplain Russel. How are you? 


Russel Myers: 

I'm doing well. Thank you. It's good to be here. 


Rev. Michael Christie: 

It's also good to have you. So, I wanted to, as we were talking about resilience and spiritual resilience, just for you to share a little bit about what is it that you do as a chaplain for first responders?


Russel Myers: 

Sure. I taught a course at the seminary on chaplaincy for about ten years. This is a helpful  story. One of my students came up with a metaphor that I think really does a good job of  describing the work of the public safety chaplain.  


She used the image of the Sherpa. For people who climb Mount Everest, they are often  accompanied by the Sherpa. The Sherpa is not a job. It's an identity. They are the people who  carry the equipment up the mountain for people who are climbing Mount Everest.  

The idea of the chaplain as a Sherpa is that we are accompanying people as they climb  their own mountains. In the case of public safety people, it's those challenging situations that  they encounter every day in the course of their work. 


So, our role is sort of like to be a Sherpa of the soul, if you will. That we walk alongside them, we help carry the load, and we do that in a variety of ways. You could say, what is it  exactly that a public safety, or in my case, EMS chaplain does?  


In practical terms, that might be going on ride alongs, hanging out at the base during  shift change time, following up with crews after a particularly difficult call. There's a lot of  activities that we do, but to get to your question of how would I describe the work or the role  of the public safety chaplain, I mean, that's the image that comes to mind for me because I'm  like a Sherpa. I'm walking alongside them and help to carry some of that weight. 


Rev. Michael Christie: 

I love that image. What a beautiful metaphor to really walk along as a support to encourage to  make sure they get to their goal to the top of the mountain. I really like that. I think so much of  what we do as chaplains and as clergy has to do with walking along and helping and assisting  others. So how has your thinking about staff support changed and evolved over the past 14  years that you've been doing the kind of work that you've been doing? 


Russel Myers: 

Well, when I first started this job, I was a hospital chaplain. The leader of our organization  contacted me and said, "We would like to be doing more in support of our people." He didn't really have a clear idea of what he was looking for, and I was not sure either, but I think at the time, I probably knew about as much about EMS as the general public, which is to say not much. I thought it was all high trauma, high drama, all lights and sirens, but I decided to give it a try.


We started one day a week, and I kept my day job over at the hospital. I started doing  some ride alongs. And over time, I began to notice that, yeah, we do have those 911 calls that  have a lot of stress, but there's a lot of the day in day out stresses of this job.  

So, over time, my focus shifted from patching up wounded people and getting them  back out on the street. I thought, "Well, let's move this upstream a little bit." It shifted to focus  more on wellness and wellbeing. How can you do a job like this and still continue to live a  good life?  


We still do the critical incident debriefings and follow up with crews after particularly  difficult calls, but that's a piece of our work, but it's not all of it. It really is a more global focus  on all the aspects of wellbeing, both preventative, kind of reactive as well as proactive,  intervention, postvention and prevention. It's kind of the way I think about it. 

How do we prevent and instill a sense of resilience, how people learn those skills so  they can take good care of themselves and not have the stress of the job be quite as impactful? How do we intervene when it does happen? And then the postvention piece is what do we do  afterward, and that would be the follow-ups. 


Rev. Michael Christie: 

Thank you. You said something that caught my attention, the piece about not fully understand  all the parts of EMS when you first got there. I'm curious. For those of us that are not in that  space and have a limited understanding of the view of what EMS does or even their needs,  could you say a little bit more about that? 


Russel Myers: 

For a lot of our providers, the stress that they encounter isn't so much the calls. Sometimes it's  the job itself. You have a job that requires you to work long shifts, to work at night, to work  outside in all kinds of weather, to work holidays. People miss out on a lot of family events.  


You might use the image of stress buckets. What are in all those buckets? Certainly, the  critical incident is one of them, but I think sometimes one of the stresses that we miss is the job itself.


Rev. Michael Christie: 

Thank you. Yeah. I really haven't considered the many family gatherings that so many first  responders have to miss because of duty calls and definitely the long hours that many of them  have to endure. I don't think the public fully appreciates all of what they do in that space and in  that regard. Now, why are the training and credentialing of the EMS chaplains important for  EMS leaders to be aware of? 


Russel Myers: 

Well, I think one thing that a lot of people aren't aware of, and maybe there's no reason why  they would know this, but chaplaincy really has changed a lot in the last say 40, 50 years,  really. With the increase in clinical training and preparation, we're asked to do a lot more.  


I think in the past, the common track was for people to serve in congregations and then  make a lateral move over into chaplaincy or do it at the same time. And part of what has  changed, especially in public safety, is recognition that we're dealing with a lot of really  intense emotions sometimes and events.  


And so, the training that goes into preparing for a position like this has to be really  intentional and really deliberate so that people have the skills. Unfortunately, I've heard a few  stories of people who said they are fine with having the chaplain for somebody else. Or  sometimes, with law enforcement chaplains, they can support the families, but the cops  themselves really don't see the chaplain as a support for themselves. 

I think some of what that reflects is that people maybe aren't prepared for the job that  they're in. I think one of the other pieces that credentialing and training bring that leaders need  to be aware of is, as a board-certified chaplain, I'm held to a code of ethics. And one important  piece of that is that we don't proselytize.  


A lot of times, people would think that's a kind of the back door into doing evangelism, is to be a chaplain. For a professional chaplain, that really doesn't have any place in this  business at all. That's not why I'm here. This isn't a church. This isn't a house of worship. It's an  ambulance company, and people didn't come here to be evangelized. They came here to do  their job. So, I need to respect that and support them in whatever path their spirituality takes  for them.


Rev. Michael Christie: 

Yeah. Thank you. I'm really appreciating that, if I heard you correctly, that the training that you receive as a chaplain is a whole lot different than that of the congregational pastor. And it's probably more trauma-informed, which is really a critical thing for us to be mindful of these days. 


Russel Myers: 

It might be like, you think about physicians or people in other professions that do all their  education, and then they have to do a residency or some clinical training where they're being  supervised.  


In my case, I was a chaplain resident for a year at a level one trauma hospital. And so, I  was supervised during that time. I was exposed to a lot of things. I had a lot of support. I came  out of that training with a lot better idea of who I was and what I was doing there. 


Rev. Michael Christie: 

Thank you. You mentioned earlier that there are times where there might be some resistance  from staff. I thought I heard you say that. Did I hear that correctly? 


Russel Myers: 

Yeah. 


Rev. Michael Christie: 

I'm curious, how do you approach that piece when staff is suspicious or resistant to the work  and the value that you bring as a chaplain? 


Russel Myers: 

Well, sometimes it's really just a, "Let me show you who I am and what I'm doing here." And in  my case, because I've been in this job long enough, actually, I probably worked here now  longer than half of our workforce with turnover. I don't have numbers on that, but a lot of  them.  


An example of this that comes to mind is, several years ago, I was doing a ride-along  with one of our crews. One of them was an experienced medic that I had gotten to know. The  other one was somebody who was rather new.


We weren't 10 minutes away from the base, headed out to where we were going to  get posted. The newer medic in the truck made some comment to the fact of, "I'm not really  sure why you're here. I don't know why I would talk to you. I'm not very religious." 

Well, before I had a chance to say anything, the other medic spoke up. He said, "Oh, no,  our chaplains aren't like that at all. They're here to support you, and they don't really care what  religion you are. They're here to follow up with you if you have a difficult call and to just get to  know us and see how they can support us in the work we're doing."  

I just thought, wow, I couldn't have asked for a better endorsement than that to have  one of the field staff explain to his peer what I was doing there. I didn't have to defend myself.  It's sort of like, "Let me show you." And they got the message. 


Rev. Michael Christie: 

Yeah. So, would you say a lot of what you bring as a chaplain for the folks particularly that are  not religious, see themselves as not religious, or see themselves as spiritual but not religious? I  really love the metaphor you made earlier about climbing Mount Everest to walk along with  them. Is that more of really deep listening that you offer them for folks that are like that, just to  have them be heard when they're going through whatever they're going through, the stresses of the job? 


Russel Myers: 

Yeah. It is. When I did my residency, it was at a public hospital, and the secretary or the  administrative assistant in our department was a county employee. She didn't come into it  because of any connection with chaplaincy. For her, it was an administrative job.  

I remember one day she made a comment, something to the effect of, "You guys don't  do any work. All you do is walk around the hospital and talk to people." And I thought, well,  that is our work. That's what we do. We come alongside people. We listen to their stories. 

I really enjoy engaging with people about what do you like to do when you're not at  work? Tell me a little bit about yourself. It's more than the uniform. It's the person inside the  uniform. What is it about the job that you take home with you, and how does home impact  work?  


We're whole people, and we can't just neatly leave all that stuff at home. When we're  here, we're still thinking about it. And when we go home, we're thinking about out our jobs. I'm in that group too. I've been doing this long enough that I know I have to practice my own self care, practice what you preach. 


Rev. Michael Christie: 

Yeah. Thank you for saying that. I was going to ask you, what are your top things and tools,  resources to help cultivate resilience and spiritual resilience? 


Russel Myers: 

Well, all of us have an innate sense of spirituality. So, what I'd like to encourage people is to  think about how do you want to nurture that? For some people, it is organized formal religion,  and I affirm that and support it. For some people, they live it out in different ways. It might be  art or music, or nature. I don't have a preference for that.  


What I want to help people hear is that it is an individual thing. At the same time, it's  something that we all share. So, what are the kind of calls that hook you the worst and what  do you do about those and which ones make you smile and how do you draw on those as  resources too that we really are, as I said, whole people and we bring our whole selves to this work? 


Rev. Michael Christie: 

Well, thank you. If you are willing, I'm wondering, for those out there going, "Yeah. Give me  something tangible, practical, something I can do to create this balance." What would you  recommend? 


Russel Myers: 

Well, when I was first starting out 35 years ago, some of the best advice I got was how  important it is to have a hobby, basically. To have things that I do on purpose intentionally to  take care of myself.  


When you think about a job in public safety, we make a difference in the world. We  save people's lives. But at the end of the day, what do those paramedics and EMTs and  dispatchers have to show for it? Some run reports, some great stories.  


Our jobs are not going to give us those tangible benefits that people in other vocations  might have. So, we need to really be deliberate about engaging in activities that will give us something that touches the senses, that touches our hearts. Something you can look at,  something you can touch or taste or smell or listen to, to really have those kinds of activities be part of our life, the same way that other self-care practices that we're all familiar with, as far as eating a healthy diet and try to get enough sleep and some of those things. But to really be mindful of what is it that brings a tear to your eye and how do you honor those experiences? 


Rev. Michael Christie: 

Thank you. So, for all the EMS leaders out there and organizations, what advice would you give  them to enhance how they support and provide care for their employees? 


Russel Myers: 

Well, one of the things that I am convinced of is this really has to be a team effort. Sometimes  a crew gets back to the base, and they've had a difficult call, and the first person they see  might be the duty supervisor.  


We need to equip that person with some really basic tools that they can use to support  the employees at all levels of the organization to be mindful of how do we support people and  what do we need. That might be some training in psychological first aid. It might be some basic  listening skills, some assessment.  


Maybe what the crew needs most of all is just an hour off so they can get something to  eat and use the restroom. Or it could be that they really need to decompress and pet the  therapy dog if you have one. Or talk to their peers and coworkers. 


The whole idea of employee support is global. It's having a peer support team. It's  having leadership that's recognizing that this is real. It doesn't help to just encourage people to  suck it up and get back out there.  


I think one of the things that are really changing is, I think, that some of the younger  generations are coming into it with some awareness of that and some expectations. They  know what they're getting into. And so, they want to know what support resources are going  to be available.  


I think the best thing an organization can do is to really see all of it as it's not an  expense at all. It's an investment. We talk about this whole department called human  resources. Well, that's what they are. We're all people. We are resources to the organization  that we work with, our employer, or whoever that we are associated with.


And so, how do we support those resources in terms of encouraging them to take their  PTO time off, or giving them a break, or providing a peer support team and appropriate  resources and training that all of those things go together to provide a culture of support. It's  not just an individual. It's not just me as the chaplain, but it's all of us together. 


Rev. Michael Christie: 

Yeah. I appreciate that. Would you now consider or say the current culture for EMS in some  ways is counter to what you're offering as a solution, as a safe space for EMS employees to  really cultivate resilience? Or would you say they're moving in a direction where they're  creating that space? 


Russel Myers: 

What I see is that we're really moving in that direction. There's a difference between  leadership and management, of course. And sometimes, the leadership for some of these  things comes from the people who aren't formal leaders, but they step up and say, "We need  to have a space."  


We have this extra room at the base, for example. Let's put a couple of comfortable  chairs in there and maybe some essential oils. Some people just aren't interested in any of that  stuff. And other people think that that's the space that we need.  


And so, working together as a whole group, between the people who are asking for it  and the people who are going to try to figure out how do we address those things, to take it  seriously that this isn't anything to be dismissed. 


Rev. Michael Christie: 

Yeah. Well, Russ Myers, thank you so much for your wisdom and for the work that you do and  your stance in the world for supporting the men and women that are doing this really difficult  work day and night. Oftentimes not being with their families and just having a host of stress  factors that they have to work with and through. So, I appreciate that you are walking with  them and trying to help the load adjust a little lighter. We thank you for your time and for your work and spiritual resilience. Thanks again. 


Russel Myers: 

Thank you.

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