Legislation must change for workplace PTSD, says Yukon flight nurse

'The onus was on me to, first of all, get the diagnosis, as well as link that diagnosis to my occupation,' says Steve Hahn.

'The onus was on me to ... get the diagnosis as well as link that diagnosis to my occupation,' says Steve Hahn

Steve Hahn, a Yukon flight nurse and trained paramedic, doesn't want anybody to have to go through what he did, in order to get help for occupationally-acquired post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (Sandi Coleman/CBC)

Steve Hahn can pinpoint the moment he realized he was not well, and needed help.

It was Sept. 5, 2011. He was on his way to work in Whitehorse, as a medevac flight nurse. He was sleep deprived and emotionally exhausted. Sitting in his truck, he began to sweat and shake uncontrollably from fear.

"I felt that I couldn't get out of my truck. I was suicidal and I really didn't know why," he recalled.

He called in sick and went to hospital and, there, began a years-long journey back to health. Hahn was eventually diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition he acquired while working as a critical care flight nurse.

"You're dealing with people, with emotions and people having the worst day of their lives — over and over and over again," he explained.

"You eat, live and breathe the previous calls and experiences, in high fidelity ... It invades both your home life as well as your recreation life and, of course, also your sleep."

Hahn is speaking out about his experiences and recovery, to convince Yukon MLAs to amend the Yukon Workers' Compensation Act to include presumptive provisions for PTSD. That would mean workers diagnosed with PTSD would not need to defend that their illness is work-related, in order to be covered by the Act's provisions.

The Yukon government has pledged to introduce such legislation, this fall, to cover first responders, but the NDP is pushing for it to cover all workers. 

NDP leader Liz Hanson wants any amendments to the Yukon Workers' Compensation Act related to presumptive PTSD to cover all workers. (CBC)

"While some work situations and some workers are more likely to be exposed to traumatic events that can lead to PTSD, it can happen to all workers and it can happen in all workplaces," NDP leader Liz Hanson said in the legislature, last week. 

Still traumatized

Hahn agrees. He doesn't want anybody to have to go through what he did, in order to get help and eventually get back to work.

Hahn can recall many experiences working as a flight nurse in the North that left him traumatized. 

He's had to "aggressively sedate" patients suffering psychotic episodes. In Nunavut, as a solo medevac worker, he had to treat patients "while one of the pilots came back to hold the patients down."

One trying experience that he vividly remembers happened on a medevac flight to Yellowknife. The plane had picked up a woman in Pelly Bay who was in labour, with a footling breach — a baby coming out feet-first.

"I was the single air medical crew at the time, and so essentially I had to hold, as it were, the infant inside the cavity for three hours in the middle of the night, all the way back to Yellowknife — no help, no assistance.

"It gets to us. It gets to anybody."

Inside an Alkan Air King Air 350, part of Yukon's air ambulance service. (Alkan Air)

'I was told I was just depressed'

When Hahn finally sought help, it took time and money to figure out that he suffered from PTSD, and then more time to prove that it was related to his job.

"The onus was on me to, first of all, get the diagnosis as well as link that diagnosis to my occupation. And there is the conundrum — it took me two years from the time I couldn't get out of my truck until my claim was accepted," he said.

Hahn said he had a lot of support in Yukon, but he also found a reluctance to believe that his job left him debilitated.

"I was told that I was just depressed, and that I was burnt out. And on top of that, that I was not trying hard enough to get better."

He hopes presumptive legislation for those diagnosed with PTSD will help save others from prolonged suffering. He's not sure he'll ever be "cured", but he's learning to manage and live with his condition.    

"The sooner you get treatment, the sooner that you're on the road to recovery," he says.

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