When the One Responding to Traumas Faces His Own

A paramedic's story

Richard Voigt

Reprinted from "Trauma and Victimization" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 3 (3), pp. 19-20

stock photoSurreal

My journey into the world of mental illness started in February 2000 with an ambulance call that should have been a routine affair: a patient was in cardiac arrest.

There was something different, for me, about the way I took in the scene as we arrived. The patient was lying in a crosswalk and a fishing rod and tackle box were sitting by the curb, some distance from a river. But things seemed oddly out of place . . .

My shift partner and I started to work on the patient immediately and were quickly backed up by the Advanced Life Support (ALS) team. As we worked, the scene became surreal. It was like I was watching everything from above—and I still couldn’t make sense of what I saw. When it came time to defibrillate the patient, I just kept on ventilating him—registering the call to clear, but unable to act. My partner had to get me to stop.

The ALS attendants took me with them to the hospital, which wasn’t usual; I was the driver and usually drove the ambulance to the hospital.. When they spoke to me after the call was completed, I felt like a robot replying, and the sensation of exhaustion was overwhelming. A hospital doctor that I knew told me to see my physician.

My family doctor sent me to a counsellor, but it was clear I needed more help. My coping mechanisms weren’t working. I was getting angrier and dwelling on calls I had done. My union representative suggested I see a psychiatrist who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder (PST).

The psychiatrist gave me good news and bad news. The good news was that he was able to verify and explain why I had PTSD; it was a relief to have some understanding of what was going on. Then the bad news: he said I shouldn’t return to my job, as my stress was work related. I was devastated.

On the advice of a co-worker I filed a Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) claim.1

Paramedic ‘real’

Having been a paramedic for 12 years, I had seen some horrific calls. Calls involving children stand out: I found it hard to accept or make sense of a child dying. Also, witnessing someone realize that their life has been altered is not pleasant, even when you’ve seen it a few times.

Thankfully, I can still count on my hands the number of really disturbing calls. Contrary to what one sees on television, our days are generally quiet. Really intense calls happen just a few times a year, but the rest tend to be calls in which you know what to expect.

However, 1999 had been a stressful year, with a higher number of critical incident calls than usual. I had attended to a fireman and three police officers. I had also attended to two co-workers and had resuscitated a friend’s daughter. When the case is close to home, it is particularly difficult emotionally.

I had an extremely upsetting experience in September 1999. My partner and I were trapped on a call at a domestic scene where weapons were involved, and at the same time I was hearing over the radio about my friend and co-worker being attacked on the job. And it brought back memories from almost 20 years prior, of dispatching taxis while a cab driver was being murdered. I really began to feel out of sorts after that day.

Prior to the ‘fisherman’ call, I had increasingly been having problems sleeping and had pain from clenching my jaw. My mood was changing. I got angry when driving. I felt wound up all the time. I didn’t want to go to work any more. However, my employer hadn’t provided training in recognizing the signs of job-related stress. My wife and I had separated and I thought it was the stress of the separation that was getting to me.

WCB: Compounding the stress

Once I had filed with WCB, things quickly went really bad.

WCB denied my claim, saying that trauma from my time as a ward of the Alberta government was the cause of my mental health condition. And any possibility of working in any form in health care was denied me by a psychologist I had never spoken with.

I had been taken into care at age 12, because my adoptive parents became ill. It was a trying time, and I did become very rebellious; consequently, was maltreated. But I never suffered any mental health issues. WCB had no evidence that my time as a ward had affected my job. And the psychiatrist’s opinion was that the PTSD was job-related.

The WCB Review Board determined that I had sustained injury from my employment as a paramedic and awarded permanent partial disability and retraining. I filed a complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal (BCHRT) in 2003, alleging discrimination based on family status and type of injury.2 This, however, began a whole new struggle—and what I believe was retaliatory action on WCB’s part.

I was inappropriately retrained and placed in a truck-driving job. I had been showing signs of road rage and, with minimal training, was expected to drive a semi-trailer through the Lower Mainland. And the prolonged sitting and heavy lifting aggravated previously documented back injuries (two herniated discs that were also later confirmed by a CT scan).3 I’ve also been forced (threatened with loss of income) to drive when experiencing problematic reactions to psychiatric medication (Moclobemide).

WCB responded by trying to have the case dismissed, arguing that my attempts to gain justice removed responsibility from their jurisdiction.4 In November 2005 I filed a Notice to Admit in BC Supreme Court, presenting all the facts of the case.3 WCB made no reply within the requisite 14 days, so my statements are legally deemed to be the truth. And in April 2006 the BCHRT denied WCB’s bid for dismissal of the case.4

WorkSafeBC (what WCB is now called) still fails to acknowledge that the evidence—which their counsel did not oppose—supports my claims of mismanagement and failing to consider my safety. And they continue to force me to drive truck.

Fighting this worker compensation claim has been incredibly stressful. Seeking help can, it seems, actually cause more harm than the original injury.

It really affected my psychological frame of mind to have my doctors say one thing (that my stress injury was work related) and WorkSafeBC say the opposite (that it wasn’t work related). Being forced to work in an inappropriate vocation by the agency charged with the protection of workers was too much for me. I got to the point where I was not only suicidal, I believed WorkSafeBC was trying to kill me. That they refuse to correct their errors I find unbelievable.

When my back injury got to the point where I needed medication for the pain, my doctor’ locum wanted me committed; she thought I was delusional, because I said that WorkSafeBC forced me, with my history of back injuries, to work in this vocation they had chosen for me. No, they would never do that!

Now I’m dealing with the BC Ombudsman. On and on it goes . . .

 
About the author

Richard is a former paramedic

 

Footnotes:
  1. Workers’ Compensation Board of BC changed its operational name to WorkSafeBC in July 2005; however, the legal name remains the Workers’ Compensation Board of BC.
  2. Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division. (2003). Navigating workplace disability insurance: Helping people with mental illness find the way. See www.cmha.bc.ca/files/wi-report.pdf for more detail of Richard’s WCB journey (under the pseudonym, Peter).
  3. Voight vs. Her Majesty the Queen in Right of the Province of British Columbia and the Workers Compensation Board of British Columbia [et al], 2005, Notice to Admit, case no. L94497, filed in the New Westminster Supreme Court of BC registry.
  4. Voight vs. Workers’ Compensation Board, 2006 BCHRT 190, RSBC 1996, c.210 (as amended). www.bchrt.bc.ca/decisions/2006/pdf/april/190_Voigt_v_Workers_Compensation_Board_2006_BCHRT_190_pdf.
  5. WorkSafe BC. (2006). Table 1: Occupational disease claims by type of disease and five-year periods: 1981-2005. www.worksafebc.com/publications/reports/statistics_reports/occupational_disease/
    1981-2005/assets/pdf/Table%201%201981-2005.pdf
    .

 

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