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Sometimes it's not enough: how one PTSD survivor is trying to save others

The family of fallen firefighter Mike Scott is asking for donations to Frontline Forward in his memory.
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Bryan Stevens is the founder of Frontline Forward. Erika Engel/CollingwoodToday

A former air ambulance advanced care paramedic may no longer be treating wounds mid-air, but he is still caring for the wounded and broken.

Bryan Stevens is the founder of Frontline Forward, an organization and facility designed to support and educate frontline workers affected by occupational stress and dealing with PTSD.

He experienced PTSD first-hand and made the decision to retire early as a result. Through a support system, professional counselling, physical therapy, meditation and more, Stevens has learned to cope with PTSD and work through the symptoms.

“Thank God I battled through it, but it’s still a challenge,” said Stevens. “You can have all the right people around you and things to support you and still sometimes that may not be enough.”

A first responder from Collingwood died by suicide earlier this week. Mike Scott was a firefighter at Central York Fire Services in Newmarket and Aurora. Before that, he was a firefighter on the Blue Mountains Fire Department. Scott’s family asked for donations to Frontline Forward in lieu of flowers.

Stevens said Scott was a good friend, and the two talked often about working as a first responder and dealing with PTSD. Scott’s funeral is today, and Stevens came to Collingwood with his wife, Angie, to attend the service.

“It’s a heavy burden to carry all this hurt,” said Stevens, quoting a song by Country singer Kevin Davidson, a former first responder. “We have to come to understand we don’t need to carry all that burden.”

Understanding was the first hurdle for Stevens, a 30-year-veteran paramedic with 12 years in Peel Region (Mississauga) and 18 years as an advanced care paramedic for Ornge based in London.

“About 25 years into my career, I noticed something wasn’t right,” said Stevens. “I went into silent mode. I had anger issues and was isolating myself … I self-medicated to go to sleep and stay asleep.”

Stevens had nightmares, which forced him to relive the things he had seen and done at work.

It took a German shepherd puppy to help Stevens see his own anger.

His new puppy, Max, appeared to have an eating disorder. It wouldn’t eat anything. Stevens responded with anger, upset to see the puppy losing weight and becoming frail.

“I thought he was going to die and there was nothing I could do,” he said. “As a first responder, that really doesn’t sit well.”

Doing something for a dying patient is the job.

Stevens told his psychiatrist about the dog, and the doctor gave him homework. Stevens was supposed to ask his dog if it liked living in his home and if it loved him. The answer, Stevens reported, was yes. His next doctor’s order was to show the dog that love.

“Stop pressuring him and let him enjoy life,” said Stevens’ doctor.

The dog gradually learned to eat without fear of upsetting its human, and has made a full recovery to grow into a “happy guy.”

But in order for Stevens to recover, he had to stop going back to the frontline and bringing home more trauma to work through. He was left with a void in his life, for he was proud of his work to help and heal people, even if not all of them made it.

Eventually he would fill that void with Frontline Forward by opening a facility in Kitchener, with a gym, yoga/meditation studio, and staff of experts, including a nutritionist, personal trainers, naturopath, massage, facial stretching, and psychology department lead by Dr. Bill Jacyk, founder of the GreeneStone Institute, an addiction treatment facility in Muskoka.

The facility is being called the first of its kind in North America. The programming includes workshops such as a class called Clowning 101, which was created by Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams, and based on the premise of using laughter to help heal mental health injuries. (Yes, the same Patch Adams featured in the Robin Williams film.) Frontline Forward is the only centre in Canada running Adams' class.

Another workshop taught by Jamie Good uses Lego to teach empathy.

“[PTSD] means something different for everyone,” said Stevens. “You can’t see it.”

For Stevens, it wasn’t the broken and burned bodies that gave him nightmares, it was seeing the emotions of the family members as they learned about the death of a loved one, or as they fell into shock while riding the helicopter ambulance alongside their child.

“Seeing the empty face of a mother going ‘what the hell is happening?’ and knowing they just need someone there to hold their hand,” said Stevens. “Being there to soften the blow got to really wear on me.”

The tagline for Frontline Forward is “Feel healthy, feel safe, feel strong.”

Feeling safe, said Stevens, is the most important.

“We need a place to truly come and feel supported and let down that invisible brick wall,” said Stevens. “We build that wall for one reason: survivability. You can’t hear, smell, see and touch the things we do and not be affected. We let that tough skin become who we are ... That’s who we have to be to do our job, where we fall short is we don’t leave that at the job.”

He has met many frontline workers who passionately deny suffering from PTSD. Many frontline workers see people struggling with mental illness, and a paramedic or a police officer or a firefighter is called out to help them in an extreme situation.

“We think, ‘I’m not that person, I take care of that person,’” said Stevens, adding it has to be OK to admit you are the person who helps, but you can also need help, and that’s OK.

“We are going to break down the stigma as soon as most of us go, ‘it’s OK,’” said Stevens. “We’re always looking for black and white answers, but there is no answer.”

He said PTSD is different for everyone, and so are the support needs.

He has also included support and workshops for families of frontline workers.

“Support for families is what we found was lacking,” said Angie Stevens, Bryan’s wife.

While he was first dealing with symptoms of PTSD and occupational stress, Angie didn’t know where to turn.

“You go into this silent position because you don’t want to tarnish their image,” said Angie. “So you try to help them on your own.”

It was a family friend who was also a psychiatrist who encouraged Angie to reach out when she thought Bryan would need it.

“Frontline Forward is bringing all these people into one place under one roof where they can feel safe,” he said. “I know right here in my heart we’re going to save lives.”

Bryan and Angie’s youngest daughter is now working as a paramedic. Their hope is for their daughter to stay healthy through her career with the help of efforts like theirs at Frontline Forward.

The family of Mike Scott has set up a Go Fund Me page with proceeds going Frontline Forward for an education and support fund for first responders. To donate to Frontline Forward in Mike Scott’s memory, click here.