Edmonton·Exclusive

Greg Turner's widow Bridget warns other paramedics could be in danger

Edmonton paramedic Greg Turner had high expectations on himself. A couple of beers in the evening and an early bedtime helped him with the hard calls, he said. As did the sleeping pills prescribed by a family doctor. Until they didn't. His wife tells the story of his struggle and suicide on Jan. 26.

Bridget Turner tells the story of Edmonton paramedic who killed himself earlier this year

Greg Turner killed himself at work between paramedic calls, on Jan. 26 in Edmonton 3:53

At 5 a.m. in the pitch-black dark of a wintry Monday morning, Bridget Turner awoke with dread in her stomach.

There was no good reason for her to be awake. But something drew her to the computer. 

There was an email from her husband, Greg Turner. He had sent it an hour earlier, during his shift as an Edmonton paramedic. The words scared her.

I knew that something bad was going to happen.- Bridget Turner

"I knew that something bad was going to happen," she said. "And so I called the police."

She called his phone, too. Over and over. Eventually, a paramedic picked up. It wasn't her husband.

Greg Turner had been found unresponsive, during down time between calls at the ambulance station in Edmonton.

Suicide.

Most Mondays since that morning in January, Bridget Turner has found herself awake at 5 a.m.

She wonders how her husband's story could have ended differently.

She wonders why more isn't being done to help others going through the same thing.

A shift in behaviour

Greg Turner, 41, was a paramedic for 16 years. A veteran with a great attitude, he was often chosen to train new recruits.
Greg and Bridget Turner were married in Las Vegas in 2006, the same year the experienced paramedic started working for the Edmonton metro region. His suicide has prompted his widow to speak out in hopes of helping other paramedics. (Courtesy of the Turner family)

"He was strong, and very caring and very sensitive," said Bridget Turner. "He knew he was a good paramedic. He was hard on his students, he was hard on his partners. He had high expectations of everybody. But it was because he was very proud of his job."

The pair were together 10 years. He proposed on a beach in Mexico and they married in Las Vegas. They started a family. They laughed a lot.

Then something changed.

Greg Turner was irritable, chronically tired and often sick. He withdrew from the family things — playgrounds, and wrestling and zoo trips — that he loved. He also had a hard time sleeping.

At first, Bridget Turner attributed his behaviour to the cost of being a shift worker. Still, the worry niggled. The fog seemed heavier and heavier over him. It didn't lift for a year.

When she asked about it, he offered reassurances. He told her he wanted to shield her from the terrible things he and his colleagues saw every day.

She knew emergency calls involving babies were hardest, since the birth of their own son and daughter — both born premature. And there had been a particularly bad abuse case in recent months that was harder than most.

A couple of beers in the evening, quiet time away from the kids and an early bedtime helped, he said. As did the sleeping pills prescribed by a family doctor. Until they didn't.

At the beginning of January, the couple decided they needed professional help.

Greg Turner killed himself three weeks later.

Monday, Jan. 26: just three days left until the doctor's appointment where he had planned to ask to be referred to a psychologist.

'This was not his choice'

Looking back, Bridget Turner says she could see the signs of depression, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

But at the time, she didn't recognize them. And she didn't talk about it with anyone.

"I wonder if I had talked about it and if I had dug a little deeper, if I would have put connections together faster," she says. 
Greg Turner, with his first child, Noah, after a work shift. Emergency calls involving children were difficult for him. (Courtesy of the Turner family)

Greg Turner didn't want to access the counselling offered to Alberta paramedics, through a confidential service called the Employee and Family Assistance Program. He didn't know enough about how it worked and the possible impact on his job. Would he be asked to quit right away? Would he lose his licence or be relegated to a desk for the rest of his career? And there was no co-worker he trusted enough to ask for more information.

Bridget Turner had faith in her husband. He had said he could wait, and she believed him. But she now knows there was no time to spare — that he had been too sick to think clearly.

She believes the illness, not the man, made the choice to end his life that dark morning.

Others struggling with PTSD

In the weeks since Greg Turner's death, Alberta Health Services (AHS) has done much to try to make it easier for paramedics to talk about mental illness and get professional help.

The employer set up a roving support team that included therapists. AHS also established a task force to investigate systemic problems that add to paramedics' stress.

The worst thing we can do is to discourage someone who might, for fear of their jobs, not come forward and say they need help.- Stephen Mandel

Paramedics themselves are talking more, too. Some have bravely shared their own stories. Leaders in the community have said "enough," and "down with the macho culture." Stress is part of the job, they say. And it's strong to get help.

But that shift appears to have hit a wall.

In recent weeks, the Alberta College of Paramedics has investigated at least two paramedics who reported a PTSD diagnosis, even though both were cleared by a psychologist to go back to ambulance work.

Questionable investigations

Bridget Turner, six-year-old Noah, Greg Turner and three-year-old Avery, at a wedding in Lethbridge, Alta. (Courtesy of the Turner family)
In one case, the college did not renew the paramedic's registration, commonly known as a licence. He can still work for AHS, but can't have any contact with patients. 

Alberta's college of paramedics, one of three self-regulating paramedic boards in Canada, is made up of a group of emergency workers. They are peers, but not doctors or psychological experts.

That board said it cannot comment on individual cases. But representatives defended the recent mental-health investigations — which involved asking individual paramedics for copies of psychological records, detailed medication lists and summaries of their psychological symptoms — by saying they have the power to do so under a legislative order from the provincial government.

But those well versed in employment and constitutional law question whether the board has the jurisdiction. And the province's health minister questions the board's decisions.

"It just shouldn't happen," said Stephen Mandel.

He called the board's mental health investigations an "unreasonable" infringement of paramedics' rights.

"If they've come forward and said, 'I've got PTSD,' and they've been cleared by a psychologist to go back to work, then they should go back to work [with patients]," he said.

"The worst thing we can do is to discourage someone who might, for fear of their jobs, not come forward and say they need help."

Widow fears others will end up 'in dark place'

As Bridget Turner now knows, that fear can turn deadly in an instant.

"That's going to cause people to stop asking for help. That's going to stop people from even considering a change. And if that happens, their PTSD and their depression is going to get a stronger hold on them every single day.

"And they're going to be at a point where they can't make those rational decisions anymore. And they're going to end up in a dark place, like Greg did."

On those Monday mornings before sunrise, she sometimes thinks about that last email from her husband — a goodbye that described his tortured thoughts.

Sometimes she thinks about how alone he must have felt, and wishes she could have been there with him.

Other times, she plans what she would say if she could talk to him one more time.

"I would say that I'm proud of him. And I hope that he's proud of me."

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