Thursday February 02, 2017

'You can't look away from a smell': A reporter's struggle with PTSD

Lost On Arrival - Curt Petrovich Feels Guilt Over Bring PTSD To His Family 1:08

Listen 25:54

Read story transcript

As a national reporter for CBC News, Curt Petrovich has been reporting from the world's hot spots for three decades.

But in 2013, one assignment was different from all the others.

In a new CBC documentary, Lost on Arrival: Me, the Mounties & PTSD, Curt says after covering Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, he came home with post traumatic stress disorder.

"I have no recollection of coming home from the Philippines. I don't remember the flight. I don't remember landing," Curt says.

Curt Petrovich

Curt Petrovich on assignment in the Philippines, Nov. 2013. He says being on the ground was very difficult to witness the body bags and smell of decay. (Bountiful Films)

Curt tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti what it was like arriving in Tacloban — one of the hardest-hit areas that took a couple of days to get into.

"I started to see the body bags piled up on the sidewalk. And then later seeing them in greater number at an outdoor morgue."

He explains the reason why the body bags affected him so profoundly was because it wasn't just being witness to something.

"It was understanding at a very visceral level that those were people who had died and had died in very difficult circumstances."

Curt says along with what he was seeing and reporting, what was difficult to convey was the smell of decay. 

Yvette Brend

Yvette Brend says her husband Curt Petrovich was zombie-like after returning home from reporting on Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. He was later diagnosed with PTSD. (Curt Petrovich)

"You can't look away from a smell. It's not something that is easy to put out of my mind." 

Curt's wife, Yvette Brend tells Tremonti that she could tell when they spoke on his assignment there was panic in his voice. 

"I remember the feeling in my gut at that point that okay, this is terrifying. I don't like what's happening to Curt. This is not good," Brend says.

When Curt did finally leave the Philippines, Brend describes him as zombie-like, numb and cut-off.

"It wasn't really Curt who came home. I mean to the point where you'd look at him in the face and he'd look different." 

Curt doesn't remember much about coming back home beyond the anger he felt and bad feelings.

"It took me a great deal of time to even acknowledge that I was somehow different or changed," he tells Tremonti.

In fact he didn't even accept his PTSD diagnosis by his psychologist because as a professional trained to observe, Curt believed he was immune to it.

"Look I've interviewed people with PTSD and I can tell you who they are. There are police officers who've been involved in traumatic situations. They're  veterans who've been in war situations. They're people who've watched other people die. There are people who've been victims of violent crime," Curt explains.

Reporters are not resistant to trauma. One study shows the lifetime prevalence of PTSD in war journalists as 28 per cent — over three times the general population.

PTSD is surprisingly common.

Almost eight per cent of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. During the course of a year, 5.2 million Americans aged 18-54 have PTSD — adjusted for population size, that would translate into approximately 520,000 Canadians.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath.