Rescuing the rescuers

Michael Swainson, 49, worked as a paramedic in Whitehorse for 21 years before he reached his breaking point. It was March of 2007, and a van had struck a snowmobile crossing the Takhini Hot Springs Road.

Michael Swainson, 49, worked as a paramedic in Whitehorse for 21 years before he reached his breaking point.

It was March of 2007, and a van had struck a snowmobile crossing the Takhini Hot Springs Road. The 16-year-old snowmobiler died from injuries.

Swainson had answered hundreds of bad calls over his career. Friends and acquaintances had died before his eyes.

But this one, somehow, was different.

“What brought it home for me was I had two sons,” he said.

One was 15. The other was 17. Both snowmobiled.

“It was just there, 24 hours, in my head,” he said.

He wasn’t the same afterwards. He found himself rambling. He couldn’t concentrate. He slept poorly.

“I’d gone numb, emotionally,” he said.

But it took Swainson 18 months to see a doctor. As he now readily admits, “first responders, as a rule, will go out and help anybody. But we’re the absolute worst at helping ourselves.”

He was referred to a specialist in Vancouver, who diagnosed Swainson as having post-traumatic stress disorder.

He had heard of combat-weary soldiers having the condition. But he had never suspected he had it himself.

It now makes a lot of sense to him. After all, paramedics, firefighters and police all encounter their share of grisly scenes. And those who live in small communities face an additional burden: “You’re probably picking up someone you know.”

This turns out to be one trigger for the disorder. Another is responding to calls involving children. A third is failed rescues.

Over his career, Swainson had encountered his share of all three.

Swainson no longer works as a paramedic. He has a desk job with the territorial government.

He hopes, by speaking publicly about his condition, he can prevent others from suffering as he has.

“I don’t want anyone else here in the Yukon to go through this,” he said.

Swainson took 10 months off work. During that time he attended a California facility that specializes in helping first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder. Only two such facilities exist in North America, he said.

It’s called the West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat. Through a five-day session, paid for by his employer, “I got my life back,” Swainson said.

He counts himself lucky. Many who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder turn to drinking and drugs. Some kill themselves.

The hardest part is to convince a first responder to admit they feel troubled. “To admit you have PTSD … is to admit you’re weak, and they’re afraid of that,” said Swainson.

But to get beyond these first few words is “like opening a floodgate,” said Swainson.

“The absolute hardest part is to crack through that shield.”

When Swainson worked as a paramedic, it was customary to debrief after a particularly bad accident. But there was little follow-up besides this, and a particular lack of support for those who work in Yukon’s smaller communities.

He hopes to change this. He’s taking courses that would allow him to offer help in the Yukon that is similar to what he received at the trauma retreat.

“Hopefully that’s something I can get into eventually, just being a sounding board if they want to talk,” he said.

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com.

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