Michael Swainson sits with two glasses in front of him. One is empty, and one is full. At the start of his first responder career in the Yukon Territory in Canada the full cup represented his ability to cope with stress. The empty cup represented his stress level.
Over the next 19 years of his EMS career, Swainson poured his ability to cope with stress into the stress level cup. By year 20, the stress level cup was full to overflowing. The ability to cope cup was empty.
“Every emergency call will take some kind of a bite out of you,” Swainson said.
Some calls take big bites out of you. He calls his the “Big Four.”
- A response to a SIDS call where the father met him at the front door cradling his dead son in his arms. Swainson’s youngest son was a year old at the time.
- A grinding wheel in an industrial shop comes apart and hits a worker in the head. Because of the extent of injuries, Swainson does not recognize him as an acquaintance until later told of the man’s death.
- A motorist dies from a head-on collision during desperate attempts to extricate her from the mangled car. Her son and Swainson’s son are in the same grade at their school.
- A passenger van T-bones and kills a 16-year-old snowmobiler at highway speed. Swainson’s two sons are 15 and 17 and both ride snowmobiles.
The teen’s death pounds the final nail into Swainson’s coffin. Engaging in life, let alone getting out of bed, was next to impossible.
“I didn’t want to feel the pain anymore, so I shut myself down emotionally and numbed out,” Swainson said. “I shut them all down.”
A registered clinical psychologist diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), stating in the report that Swainson “meets and exceeds the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD. This was most likely caused by his job as a paramedic.” He filed a PTSD claim with the Workers Compensation Board (WCB) that, although conferring with the PTSD diagnosis, denied the claim. The WCB stated the cause was not related to his EMS career.
Swainson had two choices. He could fold up his tent and quit, or he could stand and fight. He fought a battle lasting 13 months but, in the end, he won.
“It wasn’t about money; it wasn’t about time off,” Swainson said. “It was about WCB saying that Michael Swainson was injured on the job, and that is what I got.”
The Yukon Territory is now one of many jurisdictions in Canada that has presumptive WCB legislation for first responders and PTSD.
Swainson supports the legislation although his focus is helping others to avoid PTSD in the first place. He developed the one-day (eight-hour) program “Survival Skills for the First Responder” as a toolkit for education and prevention. He has taken the program to more than 40 fire departments in British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. He is a featured speaker at this year’s International Critical Incident Stress Foundation conference.
Swainson describes “Survival Skills for the First Responder” as a “boots on the ground” course taught by a “guy who has been in the trenches.” He doesn’t have to imagine what a bad call sounds or looks like. His career in the field and, later, in the dispatch center, has given him the experience.
Despite developing PTSD, Swainson doesn’t regret his EMS career.
“Not for one minute,” he said. “Why? I can think of no higher calling than serving those in need, and I will always be proud of that. Now, I feel very fortunate to help the police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and dispatchers in need of the help that hadn’t been available for me.”