Paramedic John MacDonald is recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He’ll share his experience during a PTSD tour stop in Yarmouth on May 13. TINA COMEAU PHOTO
By Tina Comeau
For 23 years John MacDonald had been a paramedic. But somewhere along the way, something crept into his life.
It crept in gradually, wearing him down. He didn’t recognize it for what it was until it was too late.
The years of attending to suicides, to car accidents, to kids dying unexpectedly and to other sudden deaths all caught up to him. But in society you’re told not to cry, he says. Not to grieve. MacDonald calls it “the old school mentality of suck it up and go back to work.”
“So unfortunately the way I dealt with it most times was a bottle and then something to help you sleep at night,” he says. “And then go back to work the next day.”
Then came Dec. 27, 2010, and the death of six-day-old baby on one of his calls. It had all become too much, he says, in talking about what triggered his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
MacDonald, who grew up in Guysborough County and worked in Antigonish for a good part of his career, will be a featured speaker at a PTSD awareness tour stop in Yarmouth on Tuesday, May 13. The tour is a grassroots initiative developed by Heroes Are Human – The Tema Conter Memorial Trust (You can view the website here.) It was launched in the wake of many suicides and reports of work-related PTSD within Canada’s emergency responder, public safety, correctional and military organizations – careers aimed at helping others that instead end up hurting those on the job.
It is felt that public awareness and pre-incident awareness and training of operations stress injuries (another term intertwined with PTSD) is crucial. But it doesn’t occur in all cases. On top of this, there is still a stigma attached so the men and women who need help don’t often seek it. Or, they don’t know where to find it.
Vince Savoia – himself a paramedic and PTSD survivor – is the founder and executive director of Heroes Are Human. He throws out the following question: “Why is a broken leg considered a viable injury, but when something goes wrong in our brain it’s questioned?
“The men and women of Canada’s public safety, military and correctional organizations witness human suffering up close and sometimes it becomes very difficult to cope with the aftermath,” he says. His message? There is a light at the end of the tunnel. “We want to make sure these men and women, and their families, know where to find it.”
It’s difficult when the job turns on you, especially when it is what you dreamed of doing. Savoia recalls watching the show Emergency! on television in the 1970s, which followed the lives of young firefighters and paramedics. It made him want to be a paramedic.
But this was anything but reality TV, he says.
“They went from call to call . . . and these guys never ever lost a life,” he says. “Then all of a sudden I go on my first call as a student and I attend to a three-year-old child who has passed away because of smoke inhalation in a fire. That wasn’t on the TV show.”
Although part of the job, it’s not easy to cope with.
Over a three-month period 48 towns and cities across the country will be stops for the Humans Are Heroes Tour, with PTSD survivors speaking at all the stops. All of the events are open to anyone who is interested about learning more about operational stress injuries and PTSD. There is no cost to attend.
The May 13 event in Yarmouth runs from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Rodd Grand Hotel.
Asked if things are better now than they were years ago, Savoia says there are organizations that are proactive and are providing pre-incident education and training. Still, others choose to deal with things after the fact.
“The perception from the front line staff is that they’re not being supported by management,” he says. “Many of them will not come forward and ask for help because of concerns of confidentiality and the loss of their job.”
While PTSD manifests itself in much the same way in individuals, what varies is the trigger. For Savoia it was responding to a murder in Halifax. For others, like John MacDonald, it is cumulative stress from call after call after call.
MacDonald says education is important because there is much about PTSD that people don’t understand. And many don’t take it seriously enough.
But he knows the price sufferers pay.
“Education, has to start in schools, it has to start in society,” he says. “You’re not allowed to say you need help. It’s just part of the culture and that’s what has to change.”
MacDonald is thankful to his family, particularly to his wife, a nurse. He put his family through hell, he says, as he was going through hell. He was eventually able to access and receive treatment, but there were very dark days accompanied by depression, psychosis, hallucinations and nightmares. Some days he’d even find himself crawling around on his hands and knees, then later curled up in a ball.
MacDonald is recovering, although he likens PTSD to being a recovering alcoholic. There will always be triggers, he says, it’s how you cope with them that matters.
He’s still working as a paramedic, but he now works in a health clinic, which doesn’t put him face-to-face with as much death that he had to deal with out in the field.
“I guess I’m one of the lucky ones,” he says. “My kids have their father. My wife has her husband and I have myself back. I can’t say that for some of my peers.”
• It is estimated that eight per cent of Canadians suffer post traumatic stress disorder.
• Research indicates that this number is two to three times higher within the emergency services sectors where 16 per cent to 24 per cent of emergency services personnel suffer with post traumatic stress disorder.
• This number is estimated to be low due to the stigma associated with seeking and accepting help.
(Source: Humans are Heroes website.)