November 14, 2019

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Public service, private hell

A disturbing number of the people who protect us and save our lives are living -- and sometimes dying -- with the emotional trauma that comes from the horror-film moments of a regular workday

 Kevin Martin, a city paramedic is back at work after dealing with PTSD.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Kevin Martin, a city paramedic is back at work after dealing with PTSD.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/7/2017 (838 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/7/2017 (838 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

They were on the front lines of emergency work in the city, dealing with some of the worst society has to offer as part of their daily routine. And they told their stories to the Winnipeg Free Press, sharing their deepest, darkest secrets as they waged an internal battle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Last summer, we introduced you to several individuals who spoke openly about their mental-health struggles with the hopes of trying to chip away at the stigma they say still exists. The result was an outpouring of support that came their way, along with meaningful dialogue in their personal and professional lives.

Last week, we continued our coverage by introducing readers to Nicole Roch, a Crown attorney who has been on PTSD leave for more than two years. She spoke candidly about a "toxic" environment in her workplace, including heavy caseloads, that has left her struggling to survive.

Statistics show 95 Manitoba lawyers, representing nearly five per cent of the profession, took advantage of counselling programs offered by the Law Society of Manitoba in 2016.

It’s clear this has become a major issue across many fronts.

The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service told the Free Press this week there has been another major jump in employees taking mental-health-related leaves in the 12 months since our story ran, with 32 in 2016 compared with 22 in 2015, 10 in 2014 and five in 2013.

"WFPS is looking for ways to provide additional training to its members related to physical and mental health to provide additional strategies to maintain good mental health, reduce stigma, recognize declining mental health and encourage and support early access to care," a spokesman said.

This includes a Critical Incident Stress Management team that "provides education, peer support, assessment and debriefing interventions to minimize the effect of acute critical incident stress for employees who are exposed to traumatic incidents," he said.

The Winnipeg Police Service won’t provide specific numbers, but said about 25 per cent of all force members are utilizing behavioural health services within the department, which include a full-time psychologist. As well, a 2014 health and wellness survey of 400 city officers revealed about six per cent were likely suffering with PTSD.

The province introduced new legislation in early 2016 that made PTSD a presumptive diagnosis for front-line workers making claims through the Workers Compensation Board. No longer do they have to fight to prove they are suffering. Lawyers are not covered by that legislation at this time.

So while some positive strides have been taken, more work is needed. The incredibly moving stories shared by some of the front-line workers in the Free Press certainly drove home that point.

How are they doing now? What has changed over the past 12 months? We recently caught up with three key figures from our original feature story for an update.


Kevin Martin continues to be exposed to trauma on a daily basis. But the veteran Winnipeg paramedic says the big difference in his life is the ability to process it.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>City paramedic Kevin Martin is back at work after dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. He has had a few minor setbacks, but nothing significant. ‘I’m proof there is light at the end of the tunnel.’</p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

City paramedic Kevin Martin is back at work after dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. He has had a few minor setbacks, but nothing significant. ‘I’m proof there is light at the end of the tunnel.’

Martin was reeling a year ago, having just gone off work on PTSD leave following a "bad call" that pushed him over the edge. He could not escape from the memory of a body that had been charred in a house fire after being brutally beaten.

Martin had seen numerous tragedies over his 16-year career. But there was something about this incident he couldn’t shake. He ended up spending about three months on leave, returning to work last fall after being cleared by the forensic psychiatrist he was seeing on a regular basis.

"The flashbacks from the event were very intrusive. I was feeling the heat from him radiating, the bright lights, the sound. It was like I was over top of everybody," Martin said. "Now when I have a flashback or recollection of an event it’s like any other call. I see it as a victory for me. It’s not stopping me."

One of the big tests for Martin was his first fire call, just weeks after he’d returned to work.

"It didn’t impact me as much as I thought it would. Once it was over it was like it was just another call," said Martin. The same goes for being exposed to deceased persons, which is an all-too-familiar experience for paramedics.

"There’s been some really awful calls in the past year, and I really haven’t missed a step," he said.

Following a death call a few weeks ago, Martin said he had about "two dozen" co-workers checking on him to ensure he was OK. And he was.

"I think I’m still seen in the workplace as damaged goods, to a certain extent, but everyone’s well-meaning," he said.

"A lot of people didn’t know what was going on until the story came out. I notice in the workplace — and it’s just people trying to be as helpful as they can— but people are hyper-vigilant. They’re always checking in."

Martin said many colleagues have approached him privately to share their own thoughts and experiences, concerned they might be dealing with PTSD as well.

"They look at my story and say, ‘Hey, maybe that’s me, too.’ I’m very open about what I went through. I tell them I’m not a professional. But I know for medics, for sure, it’s a more open topic now. It’s more acceptable. The groundwork is being laid where it’s expected of you to get help for the problem," he said.


JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Derrick McLean </p>

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Derrick McLean

Derrick McLean knew he was in for the fight of his life. But he didn’t anticipate just how difficult a battle it would be.

The 29-year-old corrections worker at the Manitoba Youth Centre said the past year has continued to be a struggle, with no end to his illness in sight.

"I am still off work, still having frequent nightmares and triggers from the PTSD," he said.

When we first met McLean last summer, he revealed that he’d made at least a half-dozen suicide attempts; sadly, those thoughts have not gone away.

"I attempted as recent as a couple weeks ago," he said.

He is now 18 months into his medical leave and continuing with a medication that has produced more frustration than anything else.

"I’ve tried various medications and therapies with little success," he said.

In addition to his illness, McLean said he’s also struggling to cope with the recent breakup of his marriage and being separated from his six- and two-year-old children.

"Meeting with my psychologist weekly helps. Exercise, talking to people about it can help. I’m starting treatment with the Marijuana for Trauma program, hoping it will help," he said.

The Marijuana for Trauma program was established in 2013 by two Canadian Forces veterans after their return from their tours of duty in Afghanistan; it was introduced in Winnipeg last year. On their website, founders Fabian Henry and Mike Southwell say their mission expanded from helping veterans and their families to now dealing with "patients suffering from operational stress injuries that were not adequately responding to conventional treatments." They are in every Canadian province and territory and say staff members include a marijuana strain consultant, a natural health and detoxification expert and a compassionate client care registration team, "all of whom are here to ensure our clients receive quality medical marijuana through impeccable service."

McLean is also in line to begin receiving visits from a service dog to assist with the PTSD through the Manitoba Search and Rescue (MSAR) program, based on a recommendation from his doctor that it could be beneficial to his treatment. And he continues to attend the Crisis Stabilization Unit in Steinbach on a "needed basis," whenever it all becomes too overwhelming. The CSU opened in 2012 and is operated by the Southern Regional Health Authority, where patients are given intensive 24-hour during their short-term stays.

McLean said his distress is a product of dealing with a shocking number of inmate suicide attempts at the youth centre. He believes there have been as many as 50 over a four-year span prior to taking his leave, added to another 200 high-risk incidents such as fights, threats and assaults.

He cited one attempt in June 2015 when he struggled to save the life of boy who was hanging from fabric wrapped around his neck. The teen survived, but McLean said it marked a dramatic turning point for him.

That incident led to his thoughts of ending his own life; he managed to stop himself at the last second on one occasion, removing the rope he’d placed around his neck. He has tried to overdose on his medication more than once.

McLean said he kept things bottled up inside far too long and was essentially lying to himself about how serious his symptoms were. He’s happy he spoke out publicly about his battle to help open a dialogue within his workplace about what jail guards can go through.

"Everyone is struggling in some way there," he said.

And while he doesn’t know when — or if — he’ll ever be freed from his endless nightmare, McLean said he hopes his story has inspired others to seek help.


Bryan Leach considers himself a PTSD survivor.

The advanced-care paramedic was in the midst of a legal battle with the City of Winnipeg when he shared his story last summer. He’d been fired after a 2014 incident with a patient at the Main Street Project.

Leach had been stationed at the so-called "drunk tank" and says he intervened when one guest tried to strangle himself. He jumped into the cell, along with two staff members, and quickly found himself in a physical battle.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Bryan Leach</p>

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Bryan Leach

The man began lashing out, and Leach responded by using a series of body blows in an attempt to subdue him. The man sustained minor injuries in the scuffle, and facility staff filed an excessive force complaint WFPS. Leach was ultimately dismissed despite police electing not to investigate or pursue any charges.

He fought that decision and was set to have a wrongful dismissal arbitration last fall.

"The city in the 11th hour called the day before my arbitration and played ‘let’s make a deal.’ I declined their initial offer and it went back-and-forth a bit before I agreed on the terms," he said.

As part of the deal, Leach signed a "non-disclosure" agreement.

"The deal provided me with closure and allowed me to move on," he said.

He was diagnosed with PTSD shortly after being fired and believes it contributed to his reaction at the Main Street Project. Leach had been assaulted, spit on and threatened numerous times while working at the facility and didn’t realize at the time the impact it was having on him.

"There will always be the odd dark day but I have a great support network of family, friends, colleagues, and psychiatrist and psychologists ready to help," he said.

He is still licensed as an advanced-care paramedic in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia and does some occasional contract work, along with teaching courses in First Aid, CPR and AED.

But he has no plans to ever return to the full-time career that wreaked havoc on his brain.

He said opening up about his battle has made a difference based on what he’s learned over the past 12 months.

"I hear that more and more paramedics suffering from some form of PTSD are reaching out for help," he said. "I’m glad I’ve shared my experiences. I have helped others come forward and assisted others reaching out for help. The stigma still exists and will require time to change."


Kevin Martin didn’t just speak out in the Free Press. He has shared his experiences at numerous conferences and seminars within the paramedic field and has spoken to new recruits and their families on a couple of occasions.

At the most recent, there were 16 fresh faces in the room eager to embark on their new careers. Martin asked them all to stand, then told 12 of them to sit down.

"Everybody look at them. They’re going to have PTSD," he told the room. It was a dramatic way to illustrate the disturbing stat; 25 per cent of paramedics will develop symptoms over their career, he said.

The Paramedic Association of Manitoba has also started a fund, through the purchase of specialized vehicle licence plates, with proceeds going to research and care for members who’ve been diagnosed.

Martin said one of the big obstacles within his profession – and those of doctors and nurses — is the ability to share details of traumatic incidents without breaching privacy regulations.

"There’s a lot of baggage that comes with a lot of these careers that you can’t offload," he said.

Martin stopped seeing his therapist as soon as he returned to work, with an open invitation to come back should he ever feel the need. He hasn’t, so far.

"I think I would know now if something started happening. Before, I didn’t," he said. "Like she said, you know it’s time to come see me when something is interrupting with your life. You’re going to go to bad calls, you’re going to see ugly things. But when it starts interfering with your life, we need to talk."

Martin took advantage of a peer-support network through the WFPS, in which dispatchers, supervisors and fellow paramedics talk regularly about what they’ve experienced.

He also credits his wife and other family members for pushing him to get help before it got out of control, which he believes made it easier to turn things around quickly and go back to work. He knows others are not as fortunate.

"Life is certainly better now than it was a year ago. I don’t think I’ll ever be cured of this. And I won’t ever get past this because it’s part of who I am. But it hasn’t interfered with life, which is what I think everybody aims for," he said.

The key was having a "fighting spirit" necessary for a full recovery, he said.

"I wish there was a magic wand that worked for everybody. But there has to be a buy-in from everybody," he said. "I guess I’m a success story. There are success stories. To others I would say trust the process. Keep at it. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It might just be a very long tunnel."

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikeoncrime

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

Read full biography

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