Art project for first responders with PTSD offers way to release pain

CALGARY – A unique art project is underway in Calgary for first responders trying to deal with the emotional burden they carry after leaving the front lines, which can lead some to develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I likened it to a body having an autopsy done…they go in and cut you open and vacate you and all that’s left is a canoe,” said paramedic Jessica Vanderhoek.

“A human canoe…that’s who I was.”

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READ MORE: Canadian first responders share their stories about dealing with PTSD

Vanderhoek said she struggles to get out of bed in the morning, and feels disconnected from her job after her experiences with trauma.

“I felt horrible for the person I was looking after. What they needed was a compassionate human being who could give them a hug and hold their hand,” she said. “I felt really bad it was me they got, because I couldn’t do that for them…I tried but I felt it wasn’t fair this poor person ended up with me that night.”

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To help deal with her pain, Vanderhoek is taking part in a special art project.  Calgary artist and Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) Teresa Coulter is providing a safe studio space to paint portraits of Vanderhoek and other emergency workers grappling with similar challenges.

“Over the last little while there’s been first responder suicides,” said Robyn Shields, an EMT who has also had her portrait painted. “Those suicides were terrifying to me. They were suffering the same way I suffered, but not doing anything about it.”

READ MORE: In Harm’s Way – The PTSD crisis among Canada’s first responders

Now, they’re finding strength in collective courage, and are trying to let go of their pain through the paintings.

The collection isn’t open to the public yet, but Coulter hopes to be able to display her works in a gallery one day to help break stereotypes and stigma around PTSD.

With files from Erika Tucker