The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly all aspects of everyday life. For front-line workers in Durham Region, however, the burden has been particularly hard to bear.
That includes many paramedics who say their workload has been impacting their mental health, including Elgin Brommel.
“It’s the stress of not knowing what we could bring home,” says Bromell, who has worked in the field for more than 20 years.
On top of that, the veteran front-line worker suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
“I was involved in two calls that involved close colleagues of mine that were in critical situations,” he said.
While he was able to get help, this year, he says, his job has felt even more confining.
“We’re working on these patients in such tight quarters, sometimes in a six-by-10 box in the back of our truck,” he says.
“Sometimes we’re working in hot zones where we enter households and could be surrounded by everybody in the household.”
What’s most worrisome for him, along with paramedics across the region, is they sometimes don’t know what they are dealing with — until they arrive at a call.
“People aren’t being honest with them,” says Kristie Osmond-Jones, president of the local CUPE union.
“We’ve got some situations where paramedics are walking into areas where patients say they don’t have symptoms or tested positive and they have.”
There are now stringent safety procedures for staff, including the use of hazmat suits while on the scene. But Bromell says that makes it harder for them to do their job effectively and safely.
“It can be somewhat claustrophobic, and depending on our environment, it does have a toll on our mental status,” says Bromell.
“In some of the more serious cases, we’re seeing difficulties trying to stabilize and just the potential exposure for a lot of skills that we have including intubation.”
With so many stressors in their day-to-day job, a Durham Region peer support team is there for them. Brian Forbes, coordinator of that team, says they have seen an increase in use of the services, but he says along with the stigma of mental health, COVID-19 protocols make it even more difficult for peers to be there for their colleagues.
“We’re still battling to fight the stigma of mental health,” says Forbes. “It’s fatigue right. People are tired of the pandemic like everybody else is, but we’re coming into work every day.”
“It’s just an increased stress of not having our regular coping mechanisms. We can’t go to the gym and exercise and see our friends and family as we usually would.”
Like so many other professions, its been challenging for paramedics with things like burnout and compassion fatigue. But the union says it just adds to the problems they’ve had for years, as staffing never seems to be enough for the demand — especially when it comes to someone needing to take a moment.
“There needs to be more paramedics on the road,” says Osmond-Jones. “When the radio is going off and the calls are coming fast and furious and you’ve just had a really traumatic experience, the last thing you’re going to do is tap out, because you don’t want to leave your partner short.”
For Spencer Jones, a former paramedic, the problem with stress for him is it’s not just one thing that triggers it.
“I was having flashbacks; I was reliving calls,” says Jones.
“It was a case of building up of multiple calls over the years of being a paramedic.”
He retired and was diagnosed with PTSD and he believes more investment is needed to help those still in the profession.
“Spending more on prevention and spending more on treatment now has a long term benefit even when it comes down to cost,” Jones says.
The union adds its members aren’t looking to be recognized, just taken care of.
“They are not looking to be heroes. They’re looking to not be broken by their careers,” says Osmond-Jones.
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