PTSD: One paramedic's fight for survival
Crises can hurt more than just victims, sometimes, emergency workers are also affected. First responders are twice as likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. The thing that made Mike Cross save lives is the thing that could kill him. Hyper-vigilance, he calls it. The quick and complete assessment of the risks of a scene, how to enter and exit safely, how to get people out, what resources are needed at what exact moment and in what exact space. That’s the perfect response to the scene of a shooting or a car crash. But driving on a family road trip? He can’t stop watching the trucks for tire wobbles and check the overpasses for someone throwing something. At the Holiday Train in London? He’s in a shooting gallery with 3 000 other people trapped in an alley of buildings with no escape, an easy target. “That’s what my mind does all the time,” he said. “It chews away at you. It whispers to you that taking yourself out is an option. You just want this to stop. “
For 36 years, Cross has been a paramedic, and a good one. Now, he is at home working through PTSD and hoping that the people first responders have helped all their lives will start to help back.
The first step will be to change the name of the problem. “It’s not a disorder,” he said. “It’s actually a normal reaction to a long series of abnormal events.” It took him a long time to realise that.
Within a few years of starting his career in rural Ontario, then Ottawa, he noticed changes in his behaviour and suffered vivid nightmares about events he’d experienced. “I equated it in my mind . . . it is like a plumber getting water splashed on them. You can’t really complain about a job that you knew what you were getting into.”
The ghosts, he calls them, helped cost him two marriages and countless nights of sleep and left him drinking too much and increasingly seeking isolation from people away from work. “At work, I was excelling in everything I did,” he says. By 2007 he was in Yellowknife, supervising emergency operations in the Northwest Territories and western Nunavut. Last October, he was trying to figure out how to help five people in medical crisis with the two planes at his disposal. After speaking with medical personnel at the scenes, he sent one plane for a heart attack victim and the other for a person with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Then a doctor called and berated him for not sending a plane for a sick infant who was far worse off than Cross had been told. “He accused me of contributing to the potential death of a child,” he said. “I just felt the world fall out from underneath me. I physically could not continue in my job.” Cross diverted a plane and the child survived. But after work that night, he went to his headquarters, which had all the drugs he needed and a body bag to lie in, to make it easier for the people who found him.
Then he recalled a story about a man who survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. The man’s first thought as he jumped was, ‘This was a mistake.’ Instead of killing himself, Cross called Manuela Joannou, an ER and family doctor who runs Project Trauma Support in Perth. She spoke to him for more than an hour and signed him up for one of her courses.
That was the start of saving his life. But on returning home to London, Cross found himself in a medical and social system that lacks the resources to deal with the growing number of PTSD sufferers. “I was just literally cold-calling people I had Googled. I would walk through the door and say. ‘Can you help?’ ” He saw social workers and counsellors and got drugs that blurred his identity, already under attack. “Everyone says, ‘Put your hand up, don’t struggle in silence.’ But you do that and you sit there with your hand up, waiting.”
A psychiatrist with a 26-month waiting list reviewed his file and bumped him up. Now he sees the psychiatrist and a psychologist. “I will be very candid,” Cross said. “As a manager, I felt very strongly that people with PTSD were just malingerers, just trying to get out of work, they’re just soft, they’re weak. I couldn’t have been more wrong if I tried.”
“You knew what you were getting into.” He still hears that.
Doubters should think about the occasional time in their lives they’ve been involved in a crisis, or even something ordinarily human and sad, Cross said, a death in the family; a car crash; an ambulance called for a heart attack.
“That’s a sentinel moment in your life. I am keyed into people’s sentinel moments, these big events, from the start of my shift to the finish,” he said. “It stays with you and when it stays with you, that’s when the damage occurs.” But he doesn’t want to forget what happened. He wants to be able to live with it. “I’m very proud of the work that I did. It is more about finding the techniques that work to get me through those moments when those moments don’t let me go forward.”
Meditating, exercising, eating better, going to therapy and peer support are helping him. But he still fears large crowds and he still has to force himself to leave the house at times. “I love this job. It was my identity, Mike the Paramedic. I lived, slept, breathed it. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back,” he said, pausing to regain his composure. “Healing myself, that’s my job now.”
By: Randy Richmond London Free Press