Slipping on a wet floor in a mill and fracturing your tailbone. Cutting your hand cooking in a commercial kitchen and needing seven stitches. Lifting a 30-kilogram box of paper and straining your back.
These are all injuries that could happen in a typical workplace. But what about a workplace that is not typical?
First responder Lisa Jennings, 49, responded to an emergency call like any other day, but the outcome of that call changed her forever.
Jennings, a paramedic in Victoria since 1997, loves what she does. But last June, after a typical call went wrong she began having nightmares, flashbacks and nausea. She described herself as being “angry and hyper-vigilant.”
Still uncomfortable with discussing the events of that day, Jennings would only say that she was left feeling frightened and unsafe.
“I was not the same,” said the Esquimalt resident.
Ten days later Jennings said she had no concept of what was happening to her and describes waking up one night, taking out her suitcase and packing it with random items like her toaster, cat litter and books. She also had thoughts of suicide.
She said she doesn’t remember driving herself to the Archie Courtnall Centre, Psychiatric Emergency Services at the Royal Jubilee Hospital.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental illness that occurs when someone is exposed to trauma involving death, threat of death, serious injury or violence.
The Canadian Mental Health Association says trauma includes length of time of the trauma, the number of traumatic experiences and the kind of support received after the events.
After 24 years as a paramedic in B.C. and Alberta, Jennings was witness to many traumatic experiences. “We see horrific things,” she said.
Between that day in June and November, Jennings made 13 trips to Archie Courtnall Centre for treatment of suicidal ideation, until her Employment Insurance medical benefits expired.
Jennings said that because she is classified as part-time, she is not entitled to long-term disability benefits or sick time.
“My employer can’t help,” she said. “My union can’t help.”
Jennings said she began having nightmares of all she had witnessed over the past years on the job she adored.
“I’ve seen some graphic stuff – murders, shootings, stabbings,” she said.
But she was told by WorkSafe BC the event that triggered her health problems was not severe or catastrophic enough.
“PTSD is not about a triggering event,” she said, “It’s an accumulative disorder.”
The CMHA says military personnel, first responders – police, firefighters, and paramedics – doctors, and nurses have higher rates of PTSD than other professions.
Bob Parkinson, director of health and wellness for the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C., said paramedics have a rate two to three times higher than the general public.
“PTSD is an injury when you injure yourself in a workplace, you make changes to how you do things,” Parkinson said.
These changes include education, training and support. “We don’t have resources implemented inside our workplace,” Parkinson added.
Parkinson said due to an outdated contract, paramedics don’t have benefits that would allow access to professionals so many members go untreated.
He said submitting a claim to WorkSafe requires an assessment by a clinical psychologist. “Getting the diagnosis is only one component,” he said. “It’s a lengthy investigation and can cost up to $3,000.”
The Tema Conter Memorial Trust, an organization in Ontario aimed to raise awareness and provide education and support for first responders in Canada, says on their website 27 first responders have died by suicide since April 29.
Like many mental illnesses, there is a stigma attached to admitting you have PTSD, and Jennings said many cases go unreported.
She said because of the difficulty of proving you have PTSD, it’s hard to get the care and support needed.
“I am not the only paramedic that has been declined these benefits.”
While he didn’t have exact numbers, Parkinson said the WorkSafe denial rate is high.
He said he would like B.C. legislation to follow that of Alberta, which gives first responders presumptive coverage. This means they no longer have to prove PTSD is job-related.
Since her Employment Insurance benefits have lapsed, Jennings has had difficulty focussing on her recovery. She was behind on her rent and didn’t know how to pay for groceries and medication.
She is preparing to appeal WorkSafe’s decision so she can afford to live while rehabilitating and said she wants to take care of herself so she can return to taking care of her community.
“I never once woke up in the morning and thought ‘oh no I have to go to work’,” said Jennings. “I couldn’t wait to get there.”
To read more about Lisa Jennings and to help her recovery, please go online to gofundme.com/gq0k7w.