Health and wellness
#BellLetsTalk – Safe Harbour: September 2015
By Keith Stecko
In June I attended the BC Fire Expo and Fire Chiefs Association of BC conference in Penticton. During the conference, I sat in on one session in particular that stirred powerful emotions not only within me but also in every fire officer in the entire room. The energy was raw, and, at times, the silence was deafening. It was a story told by firefighter Nathalie Michaud about her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This was the first time that Michaud stood in front of a packed room and bared it all: the dark thoughts and feelings of suicide and hyper vigilance; waking up in the middle of the night in a sweat-soaked bed; flashbacks; self medicating with alcohol; anger and helplessness. She relived the horrific images, smells, and sounds that have haunted her.
On Jan. 30, 2010, Michaud reported to her station in Otterburn Park, Que., for duty and found Fire Chief Richard Stringer hanging in the fire hall. Not only was Stringer her chief, he was also her husband.
As I looked around the room packed with fire officers, it was as if all the air had been sucked out of it.
Three years later, Michaud was one of the responders to Lac-Megantic and explained that she was often referred to as the rock by her peers and the people who know her well. They saw her, she said, as steady and strong, but, as she pointed out in her talk, “It turned out to be the very thing that also hurt me.” How else was she expected to act when something traumatic happened?
I sat still in my seat and listened to Michaud tell her story of finding her husband. I watched her, standing tall in her uniform, stoic and steadfast, occasionally trembling, sometimes squeezing her stress ball. It was obvious to me that every word she uttered came at a great emotional cost as she summoned strength to tell her story.
When Michaud stepped back from the lectern to signal that she was done, the audience stood and erupted with applause. It was a clear demonstration to Michaud of the support from her fire-service family.
Michaud is no doubt one of the bravest and most courageous people I have had the pleasure to meet. She stands a beacon of light for those who are suffering from PTSD in silence. She described the effect of the disorder with perfect clarity: “I’ve learned that there are two ways PTSD can kill you. First, you’re still alive, but you’re slowly dying inside. Second, suicide.”
Later at the conference I connected with two of my colleagues; both confided in me that they were struggling with PTSD. One colleague had just starting to talk to someone about his experience. As we talked, I could see by the look on his face that it weighed heavily on him.
My other colleague has been off work and has been receiving help, however, insurance coverage is limited and he is desperately seeking all avenues of assistance, including worker compensation. The situation has been emotionally draining and stressful for him; the process includes recounting his many years of responding to various traumatic calls in order to determine if he actually is suffering from PTSD.
In both of these circumstances, I mentioned to my colleagues that suffering in silence needs to stop. Coming forward and opening up is the most important step to take. Keeping the poison of PTSD inside will only continue to erode a person and can become very destructive. I was grateful that they felt they could talk to me openly about how they feel.
I believe that PTSD treatment needs to be a national strategic priority for all fire-service associations. That means pursuing and having clear discussions with provincial and territorial governments to have PTSD recognized under presumptive legislation. If a first responder is diagnosed with PTSD, the condition should be presumed to have risen out of and in the course of employment, unless the contrary is proven.
Members of the fire service respond in their communities with pride. The first word in their vocabulary is action, and they do so by putting both their physical and emotional safety at risk.
We need to talk about PTSD openly, and support and educate one another without fear of being seen as damaged goods, marginalized or cast aside. Maybe the most important action you can take is to check in with one of your fire-service colleagues and ask, “Is everything OK?”
Keith Stecko is the fire chief and emergency program co-ordinator in Smithers, B.C. He joined the fire service in 1986 as a firefighter/paramedic level 2 advanced life support, served in the Canadian Armed Forces, and is a graduate of the Lakeland College bachelor of business in emergency services program and the public administration program from Camosun College. Contact Keith at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @KeithStecko