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PTSD: Why some paramedics never leave the accident scene

Kelsie Wright.
Image Credit: Kelsie Wright
February 15, 2017 - 9:00 PM

'ALL OF A SUDDEN IT STARTED AND IT JUST WOULDN'T STOP'

KAMLOOPS - On Dec. 28, 2015, Kamloops paramedic Kelsie Wright was gearing up to head out to a motor vehicle accident, but she had no idea of the lasting impact it would have on her.

On the way there, first responders were receiving scattered information about the incident.

"You just start thinking about what you need to do and what you’re going to need from your partner and what the possible injuries could be," Wright says. "You’re starting to prepare yourself to see it and then – no matter how you picture it, it’s never like it seems."

There were no fatalities, but there were several patients including children. Some patients were in critical condition, but Wright won't go into detail about what she witnessed at the scene.

She didn't know it at the time, but less than one month later, Wright worked her last shift as a paramedic. First responders have the job of helping those who need it, but what happens when paramedics are the ones asking for help?

“I continued to work for three weeks after and I just – I don’t really know what happened,” Wright says. “I thought I was doing great and then all of a sudden it just felt like something broke and I didn’t even know that I was affected by it until I started crying at work.”

Wright broke down at work on Jan. 21. She called her supervisor and said she needed to leave immediately. That Dec. 28 impacted her in ways she couldn't have imagined.

“I wasn’t stressed out, I wasn’t having a bad day,” she says. “All of a sudden it started and it just wouldn’t stop. I kind of knew that I needed to take a break.”

Wright didn’t know yet she was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This was just the beginning of an uphill battle to get the help she desperately needed, a battle many paramedics have to fight. After she went off work, she says she didn’t get a psychological consultation through WorkSafeBC until more than one month later. The whole time, Wright wasn’t getting paid since she had not gotten a diagnosis.

Wright had her consultation on Feb. 24 but she didn’t receive her diagnosis of PTSD until one or two weeks later.

“Your claim isn’t accepted until you actually have a diagnosis,” she says. “I went about two months with added stress – no income, jumping through the hoops, nobody taking me seriously until the doctor says ‘oh yeah, you’ve actually got this.’”

Wright knew she wanted to be a paramedic after completing her first-aid course, so she applied for the program and was accepted. She fell in love with the work once she started her career in May 2011.

“It just kind of fit,” Wright says.

Wright worked in Kelowna, Cranbrook and Logan Lake before settling in Kamloops with her husband.

Now, after battling to have her disorder taken seriously, Wright is speaking out over the lack of resources available to paramedics.

FILE PHOTO
FILE PHOTO


UNION SAYS MORE NEEDS TO BE DONE

Paramedics receive $100 per year for mental health benefits, according to Ambulance and Paramedics of B.C. union spokesperson Bob Parkinson.

Although they get unlimited massages, benefits toward chiropractic services and physiotherapy, Parkinson says the $100 per year benefit is the only thing that targets the brain specifically.

“How do you use it? I mean a session is $200 to $300 so how do you use the $100?” Parkinson says. “There’s a lot more that needs to be done, and on the WorkSafe end of things, it’s still a very cumbersome, difficult process with a lot of flaws.”

Parkinson says WorkSafeBC has not released statistics on how many paramedics and dispatchers are suffering from PTSD, but any numbers that are released wouldn’t paint a full picture of the problem.

“We’ve been waiting for (the statistics) but there’s some difficulty… because they don’t tell the full story,” he says. “Stigma is still a really big one.”

Parkinson says many people don’t come forward with mental health issues until they’re at a crisis point, and since PTSD can sometimes take months or years to develop, the numbers are scattered.

Trevor Pancoust, spokesperson for B.C. Emergency Health Services, says the employer “is acutely aware” of the mental and physical toll the job can have on paramedics, dispatchers and frontline staff.

He says health services is working toward better support for employees who are undergoing mental health issues.

Parkinson says even though there are more supports in place for struggling employees, there is still a long way to go for paramedics suffering from PTSD.

“We’ve been working on it with the employer, it’s been a long go,” he says. “We’re transitioning in a better way than we ever have, we’re still not even close to where we need to be.”

Parkinson says a number of major issues contribute to paramedics being diagnosed with PTSD, but understaffing tops the list.

“When you’re understaffed there’s more pressure on you,” he says. “You end up taking later calls, you work longer hours because you’re the closest car to the next critical call.”

Parkinson didn’t have specific staffing numbers for the Interior available, but says in the Lower Mainland’s metro area they are short about 25 ambulances.

One thing that has changed since Wright’s career ended is the introduction of what Parkinson calls an “ad hoc” program.

Pancoust says the Critical Incident Stress Program is a peer program that BCEHS encourages paramedics to take advantage of if they need support.

The program has a team of 87 peers and 37 trauma counsellors available who are experienced at dealing with work stressors. It’s confidential and available at all times.

Pancoust says immediately after a critical incident occurs, the peers become involved and help paramedics in the short term, while the counsellors provide long-term service to paramedics who need it.

Parkinson says while this has been an added benefit to working paramedics, more needs to be done to address the issue.

“The problem we have with this is it’s limited to an amount of sessions,” Parkinson says. “It’s only when we’re at the lowest spot, so if you start to feel the impacts of a call or the pressures of calls that are building up, we don’t have anything to access help in real-time.”

WHY PARAMEDICS FIND IT DIFFICULT TO ASK FOR HELP

Wright still has flashbacks from accident scenes. She has anxiety that interferes with her daily activities. She’s lost motivation to do things she once loved doing. Even though she can no longer be a paramedic and is receiving treatment for her PTSD, it’s something that will always affect her.

“My brain just doesn’t process anything properly anymore,” she says. “We used to go hunting and I couldn’t really be bothered this year. I used to go for walks and get out of the house and now I don’t feel like it. I don’t even drive anymore because the winter roads and being on the highway stresses me out too much. If I go anywhere my husband has to drive.”

She agrees with Parkinson that there’s still a stigma around PTSD that needs to be broken and that paramedics often don’t reach out for help until it’s too late.

“We don’t accept help because we help — that’s how it works,” she says. “When we finally acknowledge that we do need help... it’s gotten to the point where it’s rock bottom and then you ask for help.”

Wright says the stress and delays over receiving mental health treatment causes people to delay seeking help. She says mental injuries need to be treated the same as physical injuries.

“I would rather have broken every bone in my body,” Wright says. “I had to wait six weeks for a psych assessment, so then there’s money stress and employer stress and by the time you’re put through the ringer you almost wish you didn’t bother asking. The first few months of proving that you’re actually injured is really insulting.”

Wright says the employer should believe a paramedic when they say they have mental health issues that need to be addressed. She says the gruelling process of admitting you have a problem, followed by weeks of trying to prove it, is enough to prevent people away from seeking help.

“I spent the first six weeks in tears because… I felt like nobody would take me seriously until one doctor said that I actually have what I could have told you I have because of my line of work,” she says. “There needs to be a presumption of illness. I have reached maximum medical recovery which means I am not expected to make any significant improvements within the next 12 months. My symptoms and my diagnoses are such that I am not able to return to work as a paramedic.”

For a 30-year-old woman with a young child, it’s difficult for Wright to come to grips with the end of her career.

“I don’t really know where I’m at right now… I’m having a little bit of a breakdown because I don’t know what I’m doing with my life and I’m really resentful of that,” she says. “My brain is injured but I’m still smart. I would like to feel purposeful again to my own family but I don’t know how to do that, I don’t know what I’m allowed to do or what I can be re-trained to do. I never planned on not being a paramedic. I didn’t have a backup plan.”

Parkinson and Wright have similar ideas for what they would like to see changed about the process of seeking treatment for mental health issues.

“We’ve got to address the staffing shortage, the workload,” Parkinson says. “We need to have comprehensive mental health packages in all work places but especially first responders, due to the nature of the work… It has to be there and that includes education, training (and) prevention. We need to see some updates from the workers compensation board.”

Image Credit: FILE PHOTO

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ashley Legassic or call 250-319-7494 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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