Hi there, and welcome to my Blog. Thanks for taking the time to check it out. First off, I guess I’d better say that everything contained in my blog, represents my opinions only. Names and story details might have been changed to maintain some sort of privacy.
There, now that that’s out of the way, I can tell you what the purpose of this blog is. It is to get a glimpse in the life of an Emergency Responder in Southern Ontario. A Paramedic to be exact. But the things I have gone through can be applied to anyone in the Emergency Services field. Police. Firefighters. Nurses and Dr.’s in the ER. It is not a place where I will be sharing my gory stories, or grim details of calls I have done. The purpose of this particular blog is to show the effects that these calls have on us. Ordinary people, doing an extraordinary job.
A little about me. I’m a married father of 2 beautiful girls. I have been married 13 1/2 years. My girls are both under 10, just under 2 years apart, and 1 year apart in school. My amazing wife works a regular Monday to Friday day job. I have been working as a Paramedic for 10 years, in a larger urban service. I’m certified as a Primary Care Paramedic. That means I’m certified to use drugs such as Epinepherine, Ventolin, Glucagon, Nitro Glycerine, and ASA. I can also use a few different pieces of equipment to aid/assist breathing. King LT’s and CPAP. And of course, a defibrillator.
I went to a Community College for 1 year, to receive my education. But that was back in the mid 90’s. Now it’s a 2 year program. On top of that, you have to “apprentice”, or ride 3rd on an ambulance for approx 450 hours. If you manage to be a successful graduate, you then have to write a 6 hour provincial exam. Once you have completed all of those steps, you are eligible for employment in Ontario. Once hired, you have to be certified by your local Base Hospital. Just as you think you are done, and good to work, you have to constantly attend Continuing Medical Education (CME) sessions. And you have to re certify with your base hospital yearly. It’s not the most difficult process in the world, but it takes a lot of work and dedication as well.
Now you are ready for the road. Ready to put all of that knowledge and training to use. You’re pumped, and scared all at the same time. The tones in the base go off, the sirens wail as you drive. The adrenaline is pumping at max output. You arrive on scene, and this is where all of the schooling, and the time you spent riding out as a student, fail you. The one thing I was not prepared for, and in my opinion no one is properly prepared for, is the Critical Incident Stress.
When I was in school, we never talked about it. What it was, what it does to people, nothing. Of course, you know getting into this line of work, you are going to see horrible things. It’s part of the job. But the toll it takes on you, dealing with horrible situations day in and day out, can affect you in ways you never thought possible.
A build up of Critical Incident Stress (CIS) or an incident that is not properly dealt with, can fester in the back of mind for years. It can lead to things like burnout, mood swings, depression, and addiction (alcohol and drugs). There are more, but I’m only going to talk about my experiences. In my opinion, it affects everyone differently, so the list of symptoms is large.
A situation that bothers, or sticks with on person, does not affect another. Some people have a higher tolerance to what they can handle. Either way, if a situation that has affected someone is not debriefed, and dealt with properly, it will catch up to you down the road.
Asking for help is a hard thing to do. There is still a stigma that is makes you weak. And none of us want to appear weak to our peers. I have seen a change in the last few years though. Asking for help is not being seen as weak. People, at least in my service, are starting to recognize that we need help too. You can’t do this job everyday, with what we see, and NOT need some help coping with it. The purpose of me starting this blog, is so that my fellow colleagues can see that asking for help is OK. In fact, it’s NEEDED. If ONE person reads this, and gets some much needed help because of it, then I have been successful.
I am broken. I need to be fixed. I have been suffering for years, and I finally got to the point where I could no longer continue on the path I was on. I started to become concerned about PTSD about 6 or 7 months ago. Someone made a comment at work about a fellow colleague, and it got me thinking about myself. I started to do some research. I did a lot of reading. I filled out numerous on-lines “tests” for PTSD. I scored “extremely high” or “extremely likely” in every test I did. After a month or so, I made an appointment with my family Dr. My Dr. seemed to agree with me, and referred me to a Psychiatrist. In the mean time, I just tried to “power through” every shift. I took my job 12 hours at a time. It took a long time to get an appointment with a Psychiatrist. My day finally came. I was soooo hopeful. I went. Without getting into the details, it did not go as I hoped. There is a history of some mental illness in my family. This Dr. was more focused on that, then any of the concerns I had about myself. He was more concerned that I did not know what medications some of my family members have taken in he past, then the fact I have not slept well in years. He told me my drinking was “stupid” and that I should just stop. (More on that in a bit.) He also wanted me to at least double my antidepressant dosage. I was speechless. I was devastated. I got in the car, and called my Dr. I was able to get my Dr on the phone, and I was in tears. I scheduled an appt to go and see my Dr.
To back track a bit, I had been drinking everyday for a good solid year. I was an alcoholic. It was my coping mechanism. It helped me sleep. It silenced the “noise” in my head. It relaxed me. I had, on occasion, abused other things. But I did not think too much of it, as I was functioning. I never missed work because of alcohol use, I was never incapable of doing my job, or taking my kids to their sports. As much as I didn’t think of it, I also did not want to cut down. Maybe it was I couldn’t. I’m not sure. Anyway, as my journey to get help started, I realized that I needed to eliminate alcohol from my life. So I did. Cold turkey. One night, I finished what alcohol I had left in the house. I did experience some withdrawal, but over all it was not too bad. Some nausea, a headache, cold sweats, and the shakes. They weren’t too bad. I had advised my Dr of what I was doing, and she gave me a few Valium to help. It sure did.
So back to the Psychiatrist. I went back to my Dr. The Psychiatrist had told me to drastically increase my dosage. In the report to my Dr., he suggested I be careful and limit my dosage of antidepressants, due to other mental illness in my family. So now what?? All of that waiting for conflicting advice, from the same person. My Dr. was also quite upset with the way my appointment went. Oh well, no point in dwelling on the past. My Dr. told me not to worry, they were going to refer me to someone else.
During all of this time, I was still going in to work. I was physically capable of doing my job. So I just tried to “tough it out” like so many of us do. I had some calls that really bothered me. And one that was a game changer for me. It was the call that finally broke me. On top of a pretty crappy year with some bad calls, this one changed me. I really started drinking. I was miserable. My amazing wife had been voicing her concerns to me for a while, but after that call, she also became more concerned. People at work were seeing a change in me to. People told me they were concerned for me and my well being. I told them I was fine, all the while knowing I wasn’t, but not knowing what to do about it. I was stuck in limbo. Waiting for a referral (help) from my Dr, and trying to cope until I got it. This was a pretty dark time. Nightmares, insomnia, mood swings…Taking it out on the people who least deserved it. My wife. My kids.
I finally had my snapping point. I went into work for a night shift. I hadn’t even started my shift, and I was already dreading being there. I could not mentally handle my job anymore. I could not deal with someone else’s problems. I blasted my supervisors that night, for something they could not control. I called a very close friend of mine in the service. My “Work Wife”. I didn’t know what to do. We chatted, and it was made clear I needed help, and I needed to do something about it. My Work Wife and my real wife are friends as well, and both of them told me that night that they were about to call the other and figure out a way to tell me to get some help.
I booked off of work that night, just as my shift started, on sick time. In my service, after a certain number of days off, we need some paperwork from our family Dr. I needed a copy of the form, and so being a bit proactive, I emailed the person who handles all of that paperwork, for a blank copy. A day later I got a call at home from the paperwork person. They asked why I was off, and I was hesitant to say anything. They basically explained that they wanted to make sure I was using the “correct” method for my time off. I explained what had been going on, and I was told that this should be a WSIB claim. I was rather shocked. I’ll have to admit, I never though WSIB would ever approve something like this. I have taken time off work before, for stress related reasons, and I always used my short term disability. I never considered WSIB. Well, to be honest, I guess I did, but figured they (WSIB) would never approve it.
I filled out the appropriate paperwork, and had a few conversations with my case manager, and an RN from WSIB. Both of them are from a department that deals with traumatic stress and mental health. I was eventually told that my claim had been approved. I was on the phone with the nurse, and she was explaining what was going to happen next. I was being sent to see a Psycologist who will assess me over a few weeks. At the end of my assessment, I would be given an official diagnosis, and a treatment plan. As she was telling me this, I was a bit confused. I had not been told if my claim to WSIB was approved or not. I stopped her and asked her if this means I was approved. Her answer was “absolutely. You need help, and you are going to get it.” I was overcome with emotion. I was finally going to get some help. I was going to be the person I was. I was going to get better.
Due to the Holidays, I was not able to start my assessments. I am starting in the very beginning of the new year. I am very excited to start. I know I have a long road ahead of me, but it’s one I can’t wait travel. I love my job, and want to go back to it. I also want a full collection of tools to help me cope when I need them. I want to be a better husband, a better father, and friend. I want to use my experiences to be able to help others who end up like I did. And this blog, to me, is a start. For all of it.
If you have made it this far, thank-you, from the bottom of my heart for reading. CIS, and PTSD amongst Paramedics, Police, and Firefighters, is a serious issue. It’s one that is rarely talked about. The attitude “It’s my job”, and “I’ll be fine” need to change. At the end of the day, while some people see us as heroes, we are just ordinary people.
I will continue to blog my journey. I hope that this blog helps eliminate some of the stigma about asking for help. While I’m a Paramedic, this issue also affects ER staff, Police, Firefighters, Soldiers and dispatchers.
Here is to 2014 being a better year for me. And for a lot of my friends who have had a terrible 2013.
Please feel free to share this blog. The more this gets talked about, the more the stigma of asking for help goes away, and the less likely we will see outcomes like this.
And lastly RIP Ian Matthews. I’m sorry for the daemons you tried so hard to fight alone. They can no longer get you.