‘I wasn’t leaving him’: paramedic determined
EMS workers recall trauma of rescue
“His life is forever changed. He has a lot of challenges ahead but he’s alive.”
Cochren heads to work, the Hamilton paramedic rarely knows how her day will unfold.
The morning of July 21, a call came in on her radio — a “code four in Carlisle,” which means “highest priority, lights and sirens.”
“It was a trauma, but there was nothing inside of me that made me think it would be a big call,” said Cochren, 29, and on the job for three years.
Without a description of the environment she was going to or the magnitude of the patient’s condition, Cochren prepared as best she could, mentally, before arriving to Progreston Falls, where Pentti (Ben) Paavilainen, 63, was trapped midthigh by a massive concrete slab that had separated from the side of a dam and fallen on him.
“I’ve never experienced anything like that before. I’m still new.”
As a precaution, Cochren put on safety gear before going down several stairs to the rocky terrain next to the waterfall. Nearby, she saw Paavilainen, leaning back, suspended and holding onto a rock with “nothing underneath him” for support.
Propping herself up against the
concrete next to him, she locked eyes with him.
“He was in a great deal of pain,” she said. “He was conscious and alert. … We needed a quick set of vitals and oxygen … and to notify other crews who were en route.”
“I introduced myself. I let him know what’s going on, what’s going to happen next. That was the priority. … It’s your job to control the panic.”
For the next 10 minutes, Cochren cradled Paavilainen’s head and body while doing her best to keep him calm.
More than 20 emergency responders, including a surgical team from Hamilton General trauma centre, arrived on scene.
“When we saw the large slab, we knew we had a lot of work ahead of us,” acting Captain Steve Long of the fire department recalled Friday.
Long and his crew tried twice to lift the huge concrete slab — an estimated 10 and 25 tonnes — with high-pressure airbags that can lift up to 27 tonnes.
Unsuccessful, paramedics sedated Paavilainen with painkillers while the idea of a field amputation was considered. All the while, Cochren held and comforted him.
She vowed to stay, despite being shin-deep in water under a blazing sun. “I wasn’t leaving him.”
Amputation wasn’t something vascular surgeon Dr. John Harlock and Dr. Niv Sne, trauma team leader, wanted to do.
“It wouldn’t have been a good outcome for the patient,” Harlock said.
More than two hours passed before a crane arrived and carefully lifted the massive block.
Paavilainen was flown by air ambulance to Hamilton General, where he continues to recover.
“It was awesome,” Cochren said. “There was this sense of relief that I could take a deep breath.”
Prolonged exposure to traumatic situations is not a foreign concept to first responders. They’re trained for it and experience varying degrees of trauma daily.
On its website, the Ministry of Labour says they’re “twice as likely compared to the general population” to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
In April, the Supporting Ontario’s First Responders Act was passed to provide emergency workers faster access to workers’ compensation benefits, resources and treatment.
First responders often look to their peers and families for support, “debriefing” about events they’ve experienced.
Having a conversation right after and the days following a major incident can soften the blow.
“There was open dialogue among peers to discuss what happened,” Long said about the Progreston Falls rescue.
Cochren said support of the field team, colleagues and family members in the days that followed helped put that day behind her.
“I still have a lot to learn. It was wild. I’ll never forget it.”
Primary care paramedic Mary Heather Cochren
Primary care paramedic Mary Heather Cochren was one of the principal EMS fighting to save the life of a man trapped by a concrete slab at a dam site in Flamborough.
Doctors prepared for an on-scene amputation for Ben Paavilainen.
Ben Paavilainen continues to recover in hospital following the accident.