Michelle Partington has been struggling through a dark journey with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of her operational duties serving as a paramedic in the Royal Air Force (RAF). She was the first female RAF Paramedic to serve on the front line in Afghanistan with the RAF Regiment. Michelle also served on the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) picking up severely wounded casualties from the battlefield and carrying out lifesaving interventions in the back of a helicopter. This is a very personal and thought-provoking account of her time.
Following my ground tour I completed 2 tours as part of the crew on MERT. This was the start of where it all went wrong for me. As a paramedic it was my role to dismount the helicopter to pick up the wounded and bring them on board to enable the team to commence lifesaving interventions. The team worked out of a Chinook helicopter, flying in to the battlefield, often at the point of wounding, to pick up casualties. More often than not we would fly in under fire and I often wondered on leaving the helicopter whether I would make it back on again. At times prior to leaving the helicopter I would have to make my weapon ready as we were going into a live fire fight. The casualties we picked up were the most critically injured as the team could provide lifesaving intervention such as advanced airway control, haemorrhage control and administration of blood and plasma. These casualties would range from our own UK troops, Afghan nationals, Afghan National Army and insurgents. So many times throughout the deployments my own personal beliefs and values where challenged. This was more so when the team was being sent to pick up injured children. This did not sit right with me and I struggled to come to terms with having a child in my arms who had lost limbs or was critically ill through the cost of war. One minute I’m trying to pack blood clotting dressings into gaping wounds of a soldier, the next I’m holding a baby in my arms slap bang in the middle of a war zone.
A ‘normal’ shift would consist of meeting at the hospital to draw up drugs such as ketamine. We would then load all our kit onto the landrover and drive to the flight line. On arrival we would go to the armoury to pick up our personal weapons. Each member of the team would carry a rifle and a pistol throughout the shift. So we would meet the previous shift for handover and then carry out morning checks on all the clinical kit. Throughout this process I would always be happy to take as long as I could. I was anxious because as soon as handover had occurred we could receive a call out anytime. From then on my anxiety level was through the roof. I would quite happily have spent the whole 24hr shift without a call out because that meant no one had been hurt.
One of the first call outs I attended I will never forget as long as I live. The alarm went off and the team leapt to their feet, bolted out of the door and ran the 300mtrs from the crew room to the waiting helicopter. Once boarded, each crew member has a job to do, the engineers would be working through the start up checks, the aircrew would be working up the engines whilst the RAF Regiment gunners prepped their kit and weapons for any eventuality. In my own little world, my heart was pounding, my head was busy waiting to hear what would be waiting for us on arrival. I would be donning my body armour, helmet and knee pads, all whilst praying the ant sickness tablets worked during tactical flight. The call was to a UK soldier who had been injured during an explosion. The call came through as “1 cat A double amp AK” which meant “1 severely injured casualty with above knee amputation to both legs”. On hearing this I prepped fluid lines ready for rapid blood infusion. The doctor and nurse prepared equipment for an advanced airway procedure. We would be putting the casualty to sleep because the life saving interventions would be truly awful for them to have to go through. The helicopter landed on and I ran off the back to retrieve the casualty who looked in a really bad way. I remember looking at the patients face which was grey and his eyes were dark, sunken and glazed. This was the first time I’d ever seen anything like this and despite all the training beforehand I was stunned for a split second. I was frozen to the spot for what seemed like a lifetime but it really was only seconds. I gathered myself and quickly set about checking the wounds. His legs where actually attached but totally mangled. I applied a torniquet to the top of each leg to stem any further blood loss. Then I set about stripping the casualty to check for any further wounds from the blast. I was shocked to see that his scrotum had been ripped apart in the blast. Seeing this rings alarm bells because the blast could have breached the rectum causing internal injuries. The team carried out a controlled roll and I think I jolted back in shock. His bottom had been blown to bits and there was a huge gaping wound. We packed the bleed as much as possible before landing on and transferring him to the hospital. Absolutely the worst thing I had ever seen!
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
This was one of many casualties we picked up over the tours on MERT. These call outs along with many mass casualty situations, and those including children just completely floored me. On return to the UK I struggled to readjust myself and my life started to fall apart. I was having nightmares constantly, was severely depressed and would not leave my home. I would have panic attacks and suffer extreme anxiety. I was angry one minute and the next I was on the floor in tears. My emotions seemed to be all over the place and I will try to explain it. I was going to visit my family which was a 3hr journey. Now, to cope with going out I had to plan the whole journey to the exact moment. My fiancé was joining me and I talked through the whole journey with him, where we would stop etc. We arrived at our first stop and I used the facilities. My fiancé decided he didn’t want to go despite me stating we wouldn’t be stopping again. He didn’t go and we carried on but 10 minutes later he decided he ‘needed to go’. Well that was it, I was fuming and started really shouting at him and banging my fists hard against the steering wheel. To my fiancé and probably to the outside world this was a massive over reaction. However, to me it was something I hadn’t factored in and my plan was falling apart. This was one of many episodes and sadly due to this my fiancé left me and I lost the home we lived in.
I moved back into the officers mess, just one room which became my cell. I wouldn’t go out, only venturing onto the playing fields to walk my dog. I had alienated myself from most of my friends and really hurt a couple of people I really cared about. That was the last straw for me and I just gave up. I received treatment in various treatment methods but sadly none stopped me sinking deeper into despair. My nightmares increased in severity resulting in me wetting the bed or finding myself in the corner of my room huddled on the floor frightened. One dream I had on a regular basis centred around the first call out I spoke about earlier. Another regular nightmare involved a group of children. One of our calls was to attend 6 children who had been playing but sadly detonated an explosive device. On arrival it was already dark and difficult to see anything. The injured children had been placed on stretchers and lined up. It was evident immediately that one of them was dead and the others were all severely injured. Once they had all been loaded onto the helicopter the crew set upon treating them the best we could. My casualty was difficult to manage due to the facial trauma which had sadly taken one eye and most of the face. One leg was missing and the other was so very mangled. Out of the 6 children only one survived and we later found out they were all part of the same family. My dream was of me on my knees with my patient spread across my legs bleeding out and I’m staring into the distance with a gunshot wound to my forehead. I just couldn’t cope with reliving these dreams over and over again. I couldn’t function during the day due to the lack of sleep and my head was just so fuzzy all the time. I couldn’t concentrate on anything and therefore sadly couldn’t work.
I was eventually medically discharged from the RAF and I moved up to the North West. This sadly isolated me from all I’d know after 23 years in the RAF. All of a sudden I had lost a career I had lived for. I joined at the age of 19 and worked my way up through the ranks. Once I’d reached the rank of sergeant I decided to apply for a commission. At the ripe age of 38 I found myself on a 32 week intensive course encompassing leadership theory & practice, air power, lots of exams and physical challenges. I finally reached my ultimate goal, in a male orientated world, now a commissioned officer in the RAF. I had reached the peak of an amazing career and had the potential to go much further but then suddenly it was gone. My career took me from a life of insecurities to a life where I was confident and a great leader. That very same career ended up breaking me, deleting any mark of the person I once was. I found myself grieving for the person I once was and I could not escape the darkness. I decided I could no longer bear to exist in this living hell and started plans to take my own life. I just couldn’t see any other way out and it was eating away at me from the inside. The only thing that stopped me taking away my existence was my grandad. I couldn’t bear to put the pain onto him, we are very close. Sadly though Afghanistan just would not leave me and I lived in fear for almost 2 further years before finally receiving treatment which worked for me.
Now I run a blog covering my personal journey (http://michellesandersonptsd.net) and have set up a new foundation called Behind The Mask (www.behindthemaskcharity.com) to help others who are struggling to come to terms with events that are threatening to take their lives. I survived child abuse, I survived Afghanistan which was a male orientated world, I survived the darkness that threatened to take my life…..I survived.
By Michelle Partington
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