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Russell Wangersky: PTSD claims another life

Police respond to deadly shootings at Quebec City mosque Jan. 29.
Police respond to deadly shootings at Quebec City mosque Jan. 29. - FILE

I was sitting alone in a rainy parking lot, in the dark, thumbing through my phone when I saw the news about Andréanne Leblanc. There was a dog, barking metronomically, behind a tall fence next to my car. It was dreary and wet, St. John’s in late May.

Russell Wangersky
Russell Wangersky

It was probably the worst kind of place to be.

Leblanc was one of the paramedics who responded to the Quebec City mosques shooting in January 2017. Leblanc, her mother told CBC last Thursday, committed suicide in March. The 31-year-old was found dressed in her paramedic uniform.

After the mosque attack, Leblanc went into a downward spiral. She left her Quebec City job, tried on-call paramedicine in Rimouski but found the sleep interruptions even worse, suffered a back injury, and finally couldn’t work at all.

This is what her mother told the CBC: “Her behaviour was completely changed. You would say something to her, and she wouldn’t remember. She was hyperactive, hyper-aware. Much more irritable. She didn’t at all have the same personality. She would have mood swings for no apparent reason.”

I think most first responders are familiar with aspects of that to some degree — I know I am, even years after I had to stop being a volunteer firefighter.

Hypervigilance is exhausting. You scan every circumstance for threats or risks and think constantly about how you will react and deal with them. You see accidents that haven’t happened yet, plan to dealing with choking people in restaurants when they’re talking loudly with their mouths full, see a child bump off a curb on their bike and calculate what sort of injuries you’ll have to deal with when they are hit by a car. It sounds foolish, but it’s unstoppable, the full-colour movie in your mind. You’re poised to spring, pumped full of stress chemicals that you can’t shed. And then, pumped up, you can’t sleep.

RELATED: RUSSELL WANGERSKY: PTSD — time to talk about it … and listen

Hello, insomnia — the perfect time to work through every possible mistake you might ever have made on the job. Regrets are bigger when they involve other people’s lives. Then, you do sleep, and there are the nightmares.

Mood swings? You can walk down the street and become enraged at the cheerful people you meet, simply because you think they don’t understand what the world is really like, because they don’t see what you see. You want to shake them, you want to yell, “Pay attention!”

A lot of people seem to be stunned by the fact that Leblanc received a single hour of counselling after the shootings. Many first responders don’t get any; or, fearful of looking weak, turn down opportunities for help.

It doesn’t completely go away; it hasn’t for me. If you’re lucky, you find a way to manage.

A lot of people seem to be stunned by the fact that Leblanc received a single hour of counselling after the shootings. Many first responders don’t get any; or, fearful of looking weak, turn down opportunities for help.

But that’s only one part of the story you should be looking at. In the last four years, three other paramedics that Leblanc knew had also taken their own lives.

It’s simple enough to say we have to find a way to address this, because so many lives — often young lives — are wasted.

But governments don’t always respond to single spikes of emotional stories.

So, for a government official looking at the costs of post-traumatic stress disorder, consider this. A variety of governments spent tens of thousands of dollars training me to be a firefighter. I’m trained in fire attack, fire ground control, wildfire firefighting, vehicle extrication, first aid, CPR, oxygen therapy, pumper operation, vehicle stabilization, structural firefighting, heavy rescue tools, and the list goes on.

I’ll never fight fires again, even though I sometimes miss it desperately. That’s a lot of money wasted, even if you don’t value lives.

I’m one of the lucky ones.

I’m still alive.

Thursday night, I sat in the car in the dark, wet parking lot and cried. Cried for Leblanc. Cried for me.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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