'Lost in the shuffle': Regina paramedic's death highlights need for better PTSD supports, parents say

Robbie Curtis died by suicide after suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder for years. His parents don't want paramedics experiencing the same on-the-job stresses to suffer the same fate.

Robbie Curtis suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for years before his death last month

Regina paramedic Robbie Curtis's parents say he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to some of the situations he was exposed to at work. (Submitted by Ken and Patti Curtis)

Regina paramedic Robbie Curtis, 37, struggled for years with post-traumatic stress disorder before his death last month.

Now his parents want to make sure other paramedics in the city who are facing the same stresses receive the on-the-job support they need.

Robbie died by suicide on Aug. 22, just two blocks from his parents' home. 

Robbie didn't need a bucket list; his life was one, his parents say. (Submitted by Ken and Patti Curtis)

His mother, Patti, said he was a happy-go-lucky person who skydived and swam with sharks.

"He didn't have a bucket list because he lived it," she told Morning Edition host Stefani Langenegger earlier this week.  

A gentle touch

Robbie also stood out for his compassionate touch with patients.

After his death, his family received letters from people describing how he handled his work calls. One wrote of how Robbie took his frightened grandmother's hand, kissed it and said, "We're here to look after you, Princess."

"We've heard lots of stories like that," said Robbie's father, Ken.

Robbie Curtis's parents, Ken and Patti, at their home. They say Robbie suffered from insomnia and nightmares related to his work as a paramedic. (CBC)

But Robbie's job as a paramedic with the Regina Qu'Appelle Health Region took its toll, his parents say.

Insomnia. Nightmares. "I'd wake up and hear him yelling and he was screaming about dead babies," said Patti of one night he spent at his parents' home.

He told them about his struggles. He began to drink more than before, they noticed.

They encouraged him to see a family doctor.

Better services needed: parents

His parents also sought formal counselling for him through the health region, only to find "nothing," said Patti.

Only after Robbie filed a claim for PTSD with the Saskatchewan Workers' Compensation Board did that board fund treatment from an experienced therapist.

Other emergency responders, like police and firefighters, have better supports from their employers, the Curtises said.

"Other services, when there's an incident that happens, they pull their trucks out of service and they have a qualified professional and a peer support person waiting at the station when people get back," said Patti.

"That's what we want to see happen," for paramedics, she said. "We don't want them to get lost in the shuffle anymore."

Supports in place: health authority

A spokesperson for the Saskatchewan Health Authority, which absorbed the Regina Qu'Appelle Health Region last December, said there were supports in place for people like Robbie Curtis.

The health authority has a program, offered through Toronto-based HR service provider Morneau Shepell, that provides free counselling.

Employees who qualify for workplace benefits through the extended health care plan from 3sHealth — which provides shared services to workers in the Saskatchewan health sector — can also receive funding each year for treatment from a psychologist or social worker, without a doctor's referral.

Regina EMS has also built a peer support team that includes a volunteer psychologist and 14 volunteer peer support team members.

Robbie's own friends and co-workers tried to revive him, his parents said.

After his death, Robbie Curtis's family received letters from people describing how skilfully he handled his work calls. He was also adored by his nieces and nephews, his obituary said. 'Uncle Robbie was their real life hero!' (Submitted by Ken and Patti Curtis)

"Immediately following Robbie's death, the team that cared for Robbie was provided a 'defusing' session and within 48 hours a debriefing," the health region spokesperson said.

"We had peer support team members available to all EMS employees and employees from other departments that worked with Robbie and they have been actively supporting staff since."

In the wake of his death, the health region is reviewing its supports and "determining what we need to do to strengthen both our ability to respond to and prevent occupational stress injuries," the spokesperson added.

The stigma of seeking helping

The Curtises also want the health region to offer employees education to tackle the stigma attached to workers seeking help with issues like PTSD.

"There were people who really tried to help [Robbie], and they know who they are, and people that basically ridiculed him for his weakness. They also know who they are," said Patti.

"We also need to create processes that are user-friendly to ensure care providers get help when it is needed," the health authority spokesperson said.

"We need to create resilience among our members and that can be accomplished through ongoing education, support groups, counselling, physical well-being, and an attitude of respect and support for one another."

With files from Stefani Langenegger