Patrick Hampson could only stare death in the face so many times along the “killer highway” before it left him as twisted inside as the wreckage in front of him.
The former mayor of Oliver struggled as he recalled the vivid memory of a single-vehicle rollover on the Sea to Sky Highway that occurred while he was the fire chief in Squamish
“Just as I was taking his pulse … he died. After that I felt guilty for what I had thought, which was ‘thank God it’s not my daughter, it’s some other poor bastard,’” he said. “That’s when I started to realize I was having some trouble with this thing.”
It is the burden he bears in a lengthy battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the ensuing conflict with WorkSafeBC to prove it was caused by his job. He is not alone; many first responders are coming forward with the same issue. So far, in 2016, 39 first responders have committed suicide. According to the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, 14 first responders in B.C. have taken their own life — the highest number in Canada.
The issue is being brought to centre stage in B.C. politics with the City of Coquitlam bringing forward a motion to the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Victoria at the end of the month regarding PTSD claims for first responders. The motion is being put forward by Coquitlam Coun. Dennis Marsden, advocating first responders get the assumption that the mental health issues occurred while on the job, putting the onus on WorkSafe BC to prove otherwise.
Hampson is still engaged with WorkSafe, looking to recoup from his early retirement and what he said is a misdiagnosis. Working in Squamish from 1983 until 2000, Hampson was first on the scene for many vehicular fatalities, collisions and rollovers. A study by the B.C. Ministry of Transportation at the time found the fatality rate was twice the provincial average on the Sea to Sky Highway, with multiple hot spots in Squamish.
The calls began to affect Hampson. He was called out one night to a rollover and began to think about his family.
“My daughter had been in town with her boyfriend and she wasn’t home. The first thought that came into my head was ‘oh my God I hope it isn’t her.’ That’s the kind of fear you develop after a while,” Hampson said.
“I headed out on the call. I was lead vehicle because I was command,” Hampson said.
It was up the hill coming from Britannia Beach from the south.
“I slowed down. I was going to pull over and let the truck go ahead of me because I was scared what I was going to see when I got there. I thought ‘no, I can’t do that. My job is to get there,’” Hampson said.
The struggle to prove he had PTSD began for Hampson after a diagnosis from his doctor. He applied to WorkSafeBC and had taken time off the job. What followed were multiple visits to a Whistler psychologist. After awhile he felt better and was looking to get back to work.
“My claim with ICBC, they challenged me right away and said ‘well, you shouldn’t be out on the call, fire chiefs don’t go out on calls,’” Hampson said. “I had to argue with them and say ‘maybe in Vancouver.’ They still didn’t believe me.”
Eventually a higher-up confirmed that Hampson did indeed need to be on call at the Squamish department.
“The next thing they said was you’re obviously OK because you went back to work,” Hampson said.
After returning to work he received a letter from WorkSafeBC saying his claim for PTSD was rejected and was instead diagnosed with an “anxiety disorder.”
“(Hampson’s) phobic fear to MVAs is so strong that he is at risk of causing a serious consequence to others, if he had to face an emergency situation and does not make the appropriate decisions,” the February 2010 letter states, quoting the board of psychology advisor.
“I looked at it and said ‘oh my God,’ because they’ve probably axed my job,” Hampson said.
After talking it over with his wife, Hampson decided to enter early retirement, moving to Oliver.
He persisted in challenging WorkSafe that he was suffering from PTSD, though he was informed he had passed the 90-day limit to challenge a claim.
When struggling with mental health, it can be “pretty difficult to go through a logical process,” Hampson said.
After some legislative changes in 2014, Hampson said he was told by a representative that some steps may have been missed in his case. He is still awaiting an answer from WorkSafe on his retirement pension. Hampson is seeking a payout equal to what he would have been earning had he not retired early.
“I’m able to live on it (pension), but it’s the principle of the thing,” Hampson said.
He is hopeful the momentum from the UBCM motion will carry forward into results.
“Obviously something is happening now and I think that’s great,” Hampson said. “For 23 years I pay my dues to WorkSafe and they turn around and try and find ways to weasel out of recognizing it. It has to be a better system. You can’t just run people through like a processing machine. Their job is to save money, not to pay out.”
The psychology of PTSD
Vickie Kampe runs a private counselling practice in Penticton and has training in treating trauma therapy and assisting clients with PTSD.
She also hopes to see changes in the way PTSD is dealt with for first responders.
“I think sometimes the culture of those workplaces needs to change too. What I’ve heard from first responders is that there may be some hesitation in coming forward and asking for help because they may be perceived as weak or incapable,” Kampe said. “Especially in that job when you’re consistently being placed in situations where you’re witnessing trauma over and over again.”
Every person with PTSD is a unique case, but PTSD can interfere with relationships and day-to-day functioning. It is possible to recover fully from PTSD, with therapeutic methods including revisiting the trauma and learning to see the event in different ways and learning resourcing skills, pairing a calm state with the traumatic memory.
Kampe uses the metaphor of a car alarm for the fight-or-flight response, people with PTSD are no longer in danger, but their brain remains in a hyper-vigilant, car-alarm mode.
“That can be uncomfortable when you are unable to relax, when you’re always on alert, waiting for the next bad thing to happen and being reminded of the event through different triggers — situations, sounds, memories or nightmares,” Kampe said. “When you’re in that mode, it takes you right back to the moment.”
She also recommends a standardized protocol as part of the work routine, debriefing allowing first responders to process the events.
“It should be done in a really skillful way too because when you’re debriefing you can debrief and focus on the horrific part of it, but then through counselling you would debrief and look at all the resourceful things that were happening,” Kampe said.
Hampson did leave a legacy along those lines at the Squamish department by making some changes to how staff deal with traumatic incidents.
He essentially made it a policy at the department to have post-incident debriefings with a mediator. BC Ambulance would attend and sometimes RCMP.
Finding the positives and the utility in the work, revisiting how the situation would have been worse without the efforts of first responders, would be part of that process Kampe said.
She said those suffering can have a hard time dealing with processes like proving they have PTSD.
“Sometimes it’s a hard thing to prove,” Kampe said. “I think we need to make therapy accessible. I think also the more we talk about it and raise awareness and have people come forward and say, yes I suffer with PTSD. It lessens the stigma around this disorder,” Kampe said.
Regardless of his situation, Hampson hopes the system will change so others don’t have to go through what he did in the future.
“It won’t help me, but it will help a lot of other people,” Hampson said.