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An artful conversation

Their uniformed arrival imbues the scene with a sudden sense of calm. Help has arrived. Trained to focus on the vital signs of the patient, these professionals are expected to maintain their composure regardless of what they see; regardless of the outcome.

“I think most of us going into this job are very strong, very eager,” says Emergency Medical Technician Teresa Coulter (EMR ’01). “We’re drawn to the excitement of a career helping people.”

Committing wholeheartedly to their work is easy. It’s the letting go part that can present a significant challenge.

Operational stress injuries, otherwise known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are common in this profession. Back-to-back-to-back emergencies mean heightened levels of adrenalin for extended periods of time. When there’s no processing time, the stress accumulates. “Our bodies are designed to deal with stress, with trauma, but we can’t stay in the fight-or-flight state indefinitely,” says Coulter. “After an extended period of time in that state, there’s a change in the brain chemistry. It’s an actual physical injury.” An injury that manifests from the inside out.

Suffering in silence

When Coulter was suffering a few years back, she did so silently. “There was this black toxicity inside of me. I felt so terribly ugly inside and I didn’t want to infect anybody else around me,” she says. Her response was to withdraw; to disconnect from the people she cared about. She continued to wear a brave face at work. She thought she could hide behind it. She couldn’t.

A colleague with training in mental health awareness recognized the signs and symptoms of Coulter’s PTSD and initiated an intervention. “That was the pivotal point for me,” says Coulter. “It opened up the conversation so that I could move forward.”

She’s since found a creative way to help keep that conversation going.

Coulter used to volunteer as an artists’ model. Now an artist in her own right, she put a call out on social media, asking emergency medical responders who have suffered with PTSD to sit for their portraits and tell their stories.

Twelve portraits

Sock Drawer Stories Sock Drawer Stories Sock Drawer Stories Sock Drawer Stories
Sock Drawer Stories Sock Drawer Stories Sock Drawer Stories Sock Drawer Stories
Sock Drawer Stories Sock Drawer Stories Sock Drawer Stories Sock Drawer Stories

Twelve portraits emerged, each a reflection of what Coulter heard, as well as what she saw. Coarse brush strokes cast on canvas captured raw, honest vulnerabilities. A consistent air of detachment between them creates connection. This is a series of paintings worthy of being taken seriously.

Its title, Sock Drawer Stories, comes from a peer’s analogy of an over-stuffed sock drawer. “After every bad call, every bad shift, we tend to take off our dirty work socks and stuff them into a sock drawer,” explains Coulter. “If we’re not dealing with them as they come in, it will get to the point where we can’t close that drawer. Then it spills out into our lives.”

Sock Drawer Stories was on display at the University of Calgary’s Little Gallery and, although the exhibition ended in June, Coulter hopes her artwork will keep the conversation about PTSD alive in the field.

“I’m so proud of all the people who sat for me,” says Coulter. “They came to my studio and shed everything. There’s a beautiful release in that. A lightness that comes out.”

Written by Julie Sengl