PTSD: Past the point of no return

SURREY — Hundreds of firefighters line the centre of the street as far as the eye can see.

As their black boots begin to march along the pavement, they do so in union with drums beating in the band leading the way to the church.

A handful of people line the road with solemn faces, some covering their heart with their hand.

A Canadian flag ruffles in the distance and the sun struggles to peek out of the overcast clouds above while the sound of bagpipes ring out.

As hundreds of firefighters reach the Peace Portal Alliance Church, a fire truck backs up toward the entrance where family and friends are gathered, silently watching.

Ten firemen reach up to grab a wooden coffin draped in a Canadian flag. With white gloves, they clutch the crate and rhythmically march it inside.

It was a farewell.

A farewell to Surrey firefighter Kevin Hagerty took his own life in March after years of struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

kevin haggerty funeral fire fighter

“Kevin was a Surrey firefighter for about 20 years and he was a champion for his mental health issues and he tried to help others with what he was suffering with,” said Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis outside the church following Hagerty’s service.

“That became him and he died from that.”

Garis pledged to do more for members suffering from such issues.

“It’s not an easy job,” he continued.

“(There are) very traumatic things that we see and do and have to do in our daily jobs, and we have to look after ourselves so we can carry on. Kevin’s legacy will be something we can build together so this does not happen again.”

Between April 29 and Dec. 31, 2014, 27 first responders took their own lives in Canada, according to Tema Conter Memorial Trust. So far this year, seven first responders have died by suicide across the country.

kevin haggerty funeral

PTSD ‘CHANGED’ PARAMEDIC

It was April 5, 1996. The time was 10:30 a.m.

Ironically, it was Good Friday.

“I call it black Friday now,” said Hardeep Dhaliwal.

It was a day that would go down in the story of the paramedic’s life as a turning point. It would lead to a PTSD diagnosis, a divorce, and according to him, a fundamental shift in his personality.

“I took a call from a little girl next door to where the incident took place. With dispatch, you try to picture the situation,” he explained.

And the situation was a devastating one.

It was a massacre, one that would go down as the worst in the province’s history. Armed with two handguns, uncle Mark Chahal went through a family home in Vernon, ultimately taking the lives of nine family members.

As this was happening, Dhaliwal spoke over the phone to a girl who lived nearby. He guesses she was about nine years old.

He listened intently as she described the scene. She heard gunshots. She looked outside and saw a person lying on a doorstep. Another, she said, was slumped over the hood of a vehicle. Both were bleeding.

Dhaliwal dispatched crews to the scene, all the while keeping the girl on the line, listening to the chaos ensue. The shooter was believed to be still at large.

“It was just panic.”

For Dhaliwal, the senselessness of the massacre made it hard to take.

“Car accidents are explainable. Heart attacks are explainable,” he said. “But explain to me why this guy shot all these people and killed them. ”

Dhaliwal said his family has told him that call changed him.

“I used to be the life of the party, but now I kind of sit in the corner. I love my family, don’t get me wrong, but I can only be around people for a couple hours at a time. I just need to go away and be alone.

“It’s affected my whole life.”

dhaliwal ptsd

Today, Dhaliwal said he takes sleep aids and anxiety medication. Things will trigger his memories, and he regularly suffers from flashbacks, nightmares and cold sweats.

“If there’s anything with a gun and people involved, it makes me flash back to the call,” he said. “It gets to a point where you have a feeling of helplessness. It’s not going to change.

"For me, I don’t know if these nightmares will ever end.”

Bob Parkinson, health and wellness director for the paramedics union CUPE 873, regularly assists workers like Dhaliwal who are filing claims for PTSD through WorkSafeBC. As a former paramedic, he is no stranger to the realities of the streets.

“You can go from gunshot victims to heart attacks to burns, all in the course of a shift.”

PTSD is just one of the mental injuries that can occur, Parkinson said. Anxiety and depressive disorders are also common.

Plus, the impact of PTSD runs deep.

“It’s not just us, it’s our families. Divorce rates among medics is huge and it’s understandable when you look at the stresses and the lifestyle.”

While Parkinson said it’s nice to now be able to help fellow medics through his current position, it’s also frustrating given the lack of resources. He wants to see changes in legislation, as well as in the workplace, to better aid those that are suffering.

“We’re going out there and getting injured on our job doing the work the best we can with very little support or resources or education. I think employers need to take that seriously and start implementing some of the federal legislation around mental health and strategic planning inside a workplace,” he said.

CHANGES TO LEGLISTATION NEEDED

Between June 1, 2012 and Dec. 31, 2014 WorkSafeBC received 190 mental disorder claims from ambulance or first aid services, and roughly 145 claims for law enforcement.

The Workers Compensation Act, last amended in July 2012, now allows for coverage for mental disorders that are a reaction to one or more work-related traumatic events, and that is diagnosed by a psychiatrist or psychologist.

WorkSafeBC established a specialized team in 2012 called the Mental Health Claims Unit to assist workers with their claims and provide specialized services, including counselling and other support services. The team is made up of case managers, vocational rehabilitation consultants, psychologists, physicians, nurses and other mental health specialists.

Surrey councillor and former firefighter Mike Starchuk said the changes in 2012 were “progressive” but is calling for WorkSafeBC to look at providing follow up after those diagnosed with PTSD and other mental disorders go back to work.

First responders are left to “fend for themselves” after being discharged, he said, and he would like WorkSafeBC to consult with the mental health community to come up with post discharge oversight.

Starchuk worked as a Critical Incident Scene Management peer defuser during his time with the fire department. Through that role, he spoke with six firefighters who had been formally diagnosed with PTSD.

One of them was late Surrey firefighter Hagerty.

“From the time he was recognized by WSBC for his PTSD, to his last days on earth, there weren’t any WSBC policies or mechanisms in place, to follow-up with Kevin’s mental health challenges,” he said. “If someone had sat down with Kevin (Hagerty) a year ago, would it have changed anything?”

Starchuk plans to send a letter from the city to Minister Shirley Bond, who is responsible for WorkSafeBC, requesting the changes.

Bond did not respond for comment before deadline.

“All I want is the minister to indicate to WorkSafe, to the policy makers that are there, that it’s time to take a look at this,” Starchuk said. “Kevin lived in the city, Kevin worked for the city, so I think it’s ultimately us as the people that are responsible for the city that should be pushing this forward.

“Boil it down to costs,” he continued. “I know what the cost of doing nothing is. It’s another lost life.”

Surrey-Newton MLA Harry Bains echoed Starchuk’s call.

He said firefighter and paramedic organizations have appeared as delegations in Victoria calling for such changes, but “the government hasn’t taken the next step.”

“We need to continue to push and I’ll be advocating on their behalf,” he said. “All we need to do is convince the minister and the premier. Hopefully sooner than later.”

The government and employment community needs to come together, Bains said, so “these people aren’t left on their own to fall between the cracks.

“(Kevin Hagerty) was back to work for so long, and all of the sudden…” he said, trailing off. “It was inside him and there was no help.”

kevin haggerty

areid@thenownewspaper.com

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