The Deep End – the Effects of Cumulative Trauma on Mental Health

cumulative trauma

Warning: this post contains details some may find distressing.

I started upgrading in late-2013. I’ll never forget my first patrol supervisor shift. I had just finished eating lunch and was congratulating myself on making it through the day when we received a job; a light plane carrying two people had crash-landed.

Well, shit, I thought, as I headed out with my driver. That escalated quickly.

We arrived at the scene a few minutes later to find the other emergency services already on-scene and the severely crumpled plane covered in firefighting foam. Both the pilot and his passenger managed to walk away without injury and the whole incident was handled as well as it could be. But talk about being thrown in the deep end.

I’ve never really been one to see signs in things, but when I think about that day now, it almost seemed to be a forewarning of things to come. It was as if the universe was saying, “Hey, this is the Universe speaking. Today is just a warm-up. We’ve decided to go easy on you because we know you’re new at this. We don’t want to freak you out or anything, but we want you to be prepared. It’s going to get a little rough.”

One day in May 2014, my bad run began. I arrived at work early for my 6 am section shift, which involved looking after the general running of the station. The dayshift custody sergeant, who had the sole responsibility of running the cells, arrived soon after I did. Then he and the nightshift sergeant went out to check the prisoners.

I had just started on the daily admin tasks when one of the junior members rushed in and said, “One of the prisoners is not responding. We’ve called an ambulance.”

I headed straight out to the cells and found the two sergeants trying to rouse the prisoner. He was lying motionless on one of the benches, face-up, wearing only a pair of jeans, with a small amount of vomit on his face and blanket.

I placed one hand on his shoulder and knew instantly that he was dead.

One of the sergeants helped me move the prisoner to the floor and we called out to the other members to bring the defibrillator and oxygen mask. Turning on the defibrillator, I followed the prompts and attached the pads to his upper body. We then stood back and waited for the shocks to be delivered, but nothing happened. I remember being confused, frustrated, and thinking the machine must’ve been faulty. I later learned that a defib will only work when there is still some degree of activity in the person’s heart. This prisoner had none.


We started CPR and despite the countless number of First Aid courses I’d done over the years, I couldn’t remember any of it. I had no idea of the number of breaths and compressions we were supposed to be doing, so I did what I could. I vaguely remember other members relaying instructions to us from the 000 call taker, but it was as if my brain had stopped processing information. It felt like a dream; when you’re aware of things happening around you, but you’re completely incapable of responding to them or controlling them in any way.

I performed chest compressions until my arms and shoulders started to ache, then we swapped roles. I remember trying to pump air into the prisoner’s lungs, but none of it seemed to be getting past the vomit lodged in his airway.

I couldn’t tell you the number of compressions I did or how many pumps of air I tried to deliver, but there are some things I can remember. I remember the faint smell of vomit. I remember the feeling of thick, coarse chest hair under my gloved hands. I remember those dead eyes staring up at me, almost accusingly.

The paramedics arrived and took over. They worked on him for about ten or fifteen minutes, then managed to restore some heart activity.

By this stage, the prisoners in the adjacent cells were all aware of what was going on and were watching what they could from their cell windows. When they saw the prisoner stretchered out, they began to shout, “Murderers! You fucking murdering dogs!” This was the other part of that day I have no problem remembering. I can still hear these words ringing in my ears. I’ll never forget them.

The prisoner never regained consciousness and days later, the decision was made to switch off his life-support. I kept telling myself that he didn’t die because of anything we did, it just happened. After a lifetime of drugs and alcohol, his body just decided it’d had enough.

So why did I feel so much guilt?

The day after the incident in the cells, I was rostered for a patrol supervisor shift. The first job I attended was a train suicide.

I bent over to look underneath the train and could see the poor man lying face down on the tracks, relatively intact. I’d been to half a dozen train fatalities over the years and very rarely do they remain intact. Usually, they are torn apart.


We had an idea who the man was, but needed confirmation. So without even thinking, I handed my patrol folder to a constable and crawled underneath the train. It just wasn’t something that I could’ve asked anyone else to do.

Flat on my belly, I inched along the rocks until I was as near to the man as I could be. His feet were closest to me and I couldn’t see his head or his face from my position. He was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but no shoes. This was not unusual; the impact of the train often knocks people right out of whatever they’re wearing on their feet. He had nothing in his back pockets so I gently placed one gloved hand under his body, which was still warm, and found some ID in his right front pocket.

As I started to wriggle myself back out from under the train, I noticed something on the rocks beneath me and realised I was crawling through blood and little bits of brain. I paused for a long moment. What am I doing? I asked myself. What the hell am I doing? This is not a normal day. This is not a normal week.

I got out from under the train and handed the ID to one of the other officers. Then I walked over to my parked patrol car, peeling the gloves from my hands. It was then that I noticed my hands were shaking. Hours later, after I’d gotten home, they were still shaking.

I felt completely wired. My mind was racing, I just couldn’t slow it down. Images and thoughts raced around my head. Blood. Lifelessness. Chest compressions. How many is that? Two pumps of air. Is any of this going in? You’re not doing it right. What is this on my pants? You don’t want to know. And what is that smell? Blood. Why couldn’t I remember any of it? You froze. What more could I have done? You could’ve done a lot more. Why isn’t this working!

When sleep finally did come, it brought no relief, only bad dreams and night sweats. One night I dreamt that the prisoner made a full recovery and was released from hospital. Then he took a hostage at some house somewhere and we were called and it turned into a long, drawn-out siege. I was the sergeant in charge and the first thing I did was cordon the house by surrounding it with police. I thought I had the whole thing contained, but I didn’t. At some point, he managed to escape the house unnoticed and creep up behind me. I turned around and saw he had a gun pointed at my head. “This is payback,” he said. He pulled the trigger and I jerked awake, cowering at the end of my bed.

© Triggered, 2017


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