Kitchener-Waterloo·Audio

PTSD an unseen but real workplace injury, Cambridge woman says

After 22 years on the job, Cambridge paramedic Jenny Ralph started suffering from sleep loss and flashbacks. She said it was a relief when she was diagnosed with PTSD, but she still felt marked by stigma.

After 22 years on the job, paramedic Jenny Ralph was diagnosed with PTSD

Jenny Ralph of Cambridge is a paramedic who has been diagnosed with PTSD. She has decided to tell people about her diagnosis to help herself heal. (Jenny Ralph/Facebook)

Jenny Ralph has a workplace injury, but you can't see it.

The Cambridge woman doesn't have a broken arm, she doesn't walk with a limp and her back isn't sore.

Instead, her injury is unseen, caused by the haunting memories of the horrific scenes she's been witness to as a paramedic, a job she's held for 22 years.

"For many months, I think I've been making excuses to myself for some of my presenting symptoms," said Ralph, who was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, seven weeks ago.

It started with not sleeping well, then she found it hard to concentrate, and then she started having flashbacks while she was driving.

"One day, I simply did not want to go to work," Ralph said. "For me, someone who is very passionate about my job, that was a really difficult realization for me."

First responders get PTSD coverage

This past spring, the province extended workplace insurance coverage to first responders who were diagnosed with PTSD. That decision came after seven first responders died by suicide in the first part of the year, including veteran paramedic Martin Wood.

Ontario paramedic Martin Wood died by suicide earlier this year.

"We've all seen things that we weren't meant to see, but things that we have to deal with in our own ways," Wood's brother-in-law, Dan Monague, told CBC News at Wood's funeral in February.

Wood seemed fine, "but we don't know what's happening in different people's minds and how they're going to cope," Monague had said.

Despite the legislation, some have argued the coverage doesn't go far enough. For example, it does not cover nurses.

New Democrat Cheri DiNovo, who introduced five different bills trying to extend WSIB coverage to first responders with PTSD, said she'd like to see it expand to include nurses, special constables, bailiffs and parole officers.

"Those are the heroes, and they are written out of this bill," she said.

Still stigma around diagnosis

Getting the diagnosis of PTSD was a relief, Ralph said, but she also felt marked by the stigma that is attach to it.

"I'd withdrawn from my family, from my co-workers, from close friends, mostly out of fear of being viewed as being weak," she told The Morning Edition host Craig Norris in an interview Thursday.

On December 12, Ralph wrote a Facebook post, opening up about her diagnosis.

"Well, here goes nothing," the post begins. "I have a workplace injury. Turns out that 22 years of working long hours of shift work and bearing the heavy weight of human suffering can hurt a person."

She said that one of the reasons she wrote the post was to convince herself that it was okay to have PTSD.

"I knew that I had to stop judging myself in order to reach a level of acceptance, so I felt it was time to just put it out there," she said.

The response has been "pretty incredible, quite overwhelming, nothing short of amazing."

Healing first priority

The post has been shared more than 12,000 times and she has received messages about it from around the world.

"I think what I find the most incredible about this response is how truly selfless and kind people are," she said. "These aren't just simple little one sentence 'I'm thinking of you,' although those are lovely too, I'm getting full messages that people have taken time out of their day to reflect and write to me."

Ralph said her number one goal right now is to look after herself, because she knows she can heal.

But she also wants others to know they can find the support they need to heal, so she started a Facebook group called Healing Minds, Healing Bodies.

And she's learning that it's okay to open up and ask for help.

"It has taken a lot to explain to my family members and those close to me what I need right now," she said. "I'm not very good at asking for help. I'm not very good at telling people what I need."

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