This paramedic is trying to change the law to help other first responders with PTSD'I will always be a voice that cares. Always.' Lisa Jennings is a paramedic to the paramedics.
Lisa Jennings started out as a law student at the University of Alberta. Thinking she might go into personal injury law, one night she went on a ride-along with two paramedics in Calgary. The experience changed her life. She loved everything about it: the excitement of helping strangers in crisis and the fast pace. She quit law school and changed careers.
A long career as a paramedic
She worked for 24 years as a paramedic. She loved how every call was different. Sometimes the challenges could be a little scary, but even those calls were often rewarding. Her most cherished memories were the newborns. Being a paramedic in rural Alberta meant long distance calls to remote locations far from any maternity ward. In the span of her career, Lisa delivered eleven babies, many in the back of the ambulance as it bounced along gravel roads.
All that changed in 2014, when Lisa and her partner were assaulted on a call. Soon after, Lisa started to change. She began having night terrors, reliving the call, over and over.
One night at work, shortly after the incident, she drove her ambulance through a stop sign. Realizing what she had done, she immediately took herself off shift and went home sick.
Diagnosed with PTSD after a traumatic call but denied medical claim
Back at home, she began tearing out clumps of her hair by the roots. She became delusional. She made a plan to end her life but at the last minute, instead walked to the nearest hospital. She walked straight into the emergency room and was admitted to the emergency psych ward. That first night an emergency psychiatrist diagnosed her with PTSD.
Over the next eight months, she would make 13 more trips to the ER for suicidal ideation. Eventually, her employment insurance medical benefits ran out, so she filed a claim with WorkSafe BC, on the grounds she suffered PTSD as a result of her job.
To file her claim, she had to submit to a rigorous interview process to determine if her injury met WorkSafe BC’s criteria for mental health injury: “So you go through the whole thing again and relive the trauma and answer all their questions. They go back into your family history, childhood, anything they deem they want to go through. They talk about your medical history in depth, whether it’s relevant to this situation or not.”
In the end, Lisa’s claim was denied. Since that day, she continues to struggle with depression, homelessness and suicidal ideation.
Starting 'You Are Not Alone'
Lisa’s goal is to add what’s known as a “presumptive clause” to the workers’ compensation legislation that says that if a first responder is diagnosed with PTSD, it would presumed to be work-related unless proven otherwise thereby reversing the onus on first responders to prove a connection between their diagnosis and their job. Five provinces have already added such clauses with Ontario being the most recent.
While she was fighting her case, Lisa started a Facebook group and a website called You Are Not Alone PTSD BC to help other first responders who have PTSD and to try to draw attention to the need to change the laws.
The page started with eight members and quickly grew. Today it has more than 400 members — all first responders from across BC.
As Lisa describes it: “I’m a one-person crisis hotline. I am also a reporting centre. Paramedics, family, friends, police and fire departments report to me if they’ve lost a member. And it never triggers me, because I just feel like I’m being a paramedic to the paramedics.”