On a blue-skied summer afternoon, Charles Neher awoke and got ready to die.
He was 34 years old. His birthday was 10 days away. His wife of eight years had asked for a divorce a couple of weeks earlier. He would soon be a part-time dad to his five-year-old.
Now, with the August breeze outside his window, he swung his feet over the edge of the bed and took the first few steps of his plan to kill himself.
He would start by putting on his Emergency Medical Technician uniform.
“I am going to drive my ambulance the wrong way down the High Level Bridge and go over the side,” he thought as he pulled on his pants.
The decision had come to him calmly. It would be a relief from the crushing weight of stress. Stress that at first seemed manageable: small rocks that sat lightly on his life.
But those rocks kept piling.
And now he felt buried.
He would kill himself at work today. He would not hurt anyone else. But he would end it.
One of many suicides
Crowds of people from what many call Alberta’s “paramedic family” gathered at a church in Beaumont over the weekend to remember a man with a hauntingly similar story.
Greg Turner, 41, committed suicide just over a week ago, during his shift as an Edmonton paramedic.
He was married with two children. He had worked as a paramedic for 16 years.
“I am broken. I know in my heart that this was not a choice,” his wife, Bridget Turner, wrote in a public Facebook posting days before the funeral.
“He did not choose death over us. Depression made that choice for him and it was a battle he was too sick to fight. It is a disease that kills without the right treatment, just like cancer.”
Turner was one of at least four first responders who have committed suicide in Canada since the start of 2015, according to the Tema Conter Memorial Trust. The research group reported 27 first responder suicides between April and December 2014.
But because these cases are hard to confirm and difficult to discuss, there are likely many more.
“It’s not definitive,” said spokesperson Erin Alvarez. “Unfortunately, we know that it is a higher number.”
Haunted by a child’s death
About 400 paramedics and EMTs work in the Edmonton metro region. They say they handle more calls with less support on the job since the service switched from the umbrella of the municipal government to the province.
“We know that, in particular, Edmonton members feel that the resources that they need to do the job have not been keeping up with the needs of the population,” said Elisabeth Ballermann, president of the Union of Healthcare Professionals.
She has received reports of EMS workers who experience added pressure to get back on the road to deal with the next emergency call - even after dealing with difficult trauma.
In Neher’s case, the most difficult was a child’s death.
He and a coworker arrived at a home to find a baby dead. The parents were frantic and screaming.
It hit him hard. But he didn’t realize it at the time.
Two years later, after another difficult call involving a child, a colleague noticed Neher wasn’t smiling and his eyes looked empty. She convinced him to talk to a psychologist and Neher was eventually diagnosed with PTSD.
He worked with it for five years before he decided to kill himself on that day last August.
Now, he couldn’t be more grateful that he changed his mind.
‘I’m going to hurt myself here’
It was near supper-time. Neher’s overnight shift was due to start soon. He was feeling less certain about his suicide plan.
As he pulled on the rest of his uniform, his heart beat wildly and his breathing was so rapid that his vision blurred.
He arrived at the station. And changed his mind.
“I walked into my supervisor’s office and said, ‘I need to go home.’ And then when they asked me why, I said, ‘Because I’m going to hurt myself here. Because I need to make a point.’ ”
Neher went home in the gathering darkness, had a smoke, poured a glass of water and noticed something in a mirror across from the sink.
“I caught my reflection in the mirror, and I didn’t recognize myself,” he said. “I thought: It’s time to get help.”
He had already opened up to his supervisors and some colleagues about his PTSD, but these days he talks about it even more.
Neher encourages colleagues to attend peer-led support sessions. He often fields questions in the background from paramedic friends — about how he knew something was wrong and where to go to get help.
“You’re not alone, you need to come forward,” he said in a direct message to any first responder suffering acute stress or depression who may be afraid to talk about it.
“I know that there’s a group of us that are making damn sure that Greg killing himself is not something that’s going to be forgotten. It’s a sad and unfortunate event that I think will be a rallying cry for a lot of us for a long time.”