EMS Today, Operations

Paramedics Advocate PTSD Awareness at EMS Today 2017

At EMS Today 2017, conference attendees were given a unique opportunity to hear a very personal and graphic account of PTSD.

In their session “Unexpected Nightmares: A Paramedic Attacked and Stabbed on Duty Describes the Hurdles of Recovering from PTSD,” Benjamin Vernon and Alex Walbrett, both San Diego Fire Rescue firefighter paramedics, presented the most chilling account of a call gone horribly wrong. The two have been friends for 14 years and partners for two years. They were both stabbed multiple times while on a routine medical aid call for an intoxicated patient at a trolley stop in San Diego, Calif.

The engine they were on is one of the two busiest in the city and runs upwards of 20–30 calls a day. This particular day they were responding to a type of call and a location that they had been to countless times before. What they didn’t know was that this was the day that would change both of their lives forever.

Because the incident happened in such a public place, there are several videos capturing the entire event. The footage brought tears to my eyes and deeply impacted everyone in the room. The assailant was a bystander who, in body camera footage, was seen to be very intrusive and defiant prior to the arrival of SDFD Engine 4. However, this information was not shared with the crew upon their arrival.

There is video of Vernon actually talking to the assailant prior to the attack. The assailant then appeared to leave the scene, only to reenter and engage the crew and fighting with the trolley security. The assailant then broke away, and the video shows Vernon trying to calm the man. The next eight seconds of video show the attack in vivid detail.

The crew came running to Vernon’s rescue, and Walbrett can be seen jumping the railing and knocking the man down. This is when Walbrett received his stab wounds. The time from onset to the man being subdued was only 40 seconds, but the physical and mental issues to follow will last Vernon and Walbrett a lifetime.

Both men gave incredible accounts of the unspeakable mental struggles they have faced, and how each is uniquely dealing with the aftermath. Both men have suffered horrible insomnia and vivid night terrors that are haunting to hear. They are both suffering hypervigilance and inappropriate anger response to nonissue events. These two tell the entire event with the gravity it deserves, but their humor and love for each other comes out with every word.

Walbrett sought help and support from a fellow department member who was a former law enforcement officer and left the field after a justified shooting. The advice given him was, “You will never be the same person again. You have to figure out who you are now.” This was profound for Walbrett, and he has been able to adjust his outlook on the situation.

Vernon shared his path with the honesty he wants everyone in EMS and Fire to possess about mental health. Both men tried utilizing the EAP psychiatric help provided by the city, but found it to be completely inadequate. The EAP advice given to both was to stop drinking caffeine. This, for two mentally and physically strong men who were in the beginning of textbook PTSD.

Vernon took it upon himself to go outside the system and approach the San Diego Police Department psychologists. The man who would soon become his lifeline was a former police sergeant and understood the EMS and fire world. He utilized a therapy called eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR is a technique developed by Francine Shapiro that is used to help victims of traumatic events form new associations between the traumatic memory and more adaptive memories or information. Vernon is very clear that this has saved him.

Both men strongly advocate proper mental health training for first responders, long before an incident like this occurs. They reflected back to the day in EMT school where one slide was presented on mental health, with no follow up. They are on a crusade to dispel the stigma attached with reaching out to obtain psychological help. With the profession they have chosen, the character they both possess, and the passion for the message they are spreading, they fit the true definition of heroes.