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Ada County Paramedics Cope with Internal Tragedy After Two Commit Suicide

Sorrow spurs new emphasis on mental health

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Janny Wing usually works on Wednesdays, but on March 18, she took the day off for a board meeting at Opera Idaho. That afternoon, she was sitting at her computer when her phone buzzed with a text message from one of her colleagues at Ada County Paramedics, where she has worked as an EMT paramedic for nearly 10 years.

"It was upsetting," Wing said. "I'm not an emotional person, but it hit me pretty hard."

She called her husband, also an EMT with Ada County Paramedics, asking if he'd heard. He had. That afternoon, her colleague, Brian Peterson, committed suicide in his home.

It's wasn't the first time Wing had gotten a text like that. Only six months earlier, on Sept. 6, 2014, while shopping for new wine glasses, she got a similar call. Her work partner, Donna Sellers, had killed herself.

Wing felt complete disbelief. She saw Sellers only a week before, and Sellers seemed fine.

"Nothing would have made me think she was even sad," Wing said. "Hindsight is 20/20 but even in hindsight, as a co-worker, nothing from either Brian or Donna would have made me think they were suicidal."

When Wing first heard about Sellers, the disbelief took a long time to fade into sadness, but when she got the text about Peterson, "I skipped the shock and went straight to the crying. I'm not even a crier."

Two suicides in the past six months have left Ada County Paramedics reeling and uncertain on how to prevent more.

What Does It Take?
Wing has a bouncy personality complete with an easy laugh and a big smile. She is in her mid-30s and she's an avid skier, hiker and whitewater rafter. She's up for just about anything if it's outdoors.

But when she goes to work, she becomes—in her words—"bossy." Her co-workers describe her as a "take-no-shit hard-ass" and when calls get tough, the saying goes, "Channel your inner Janny."

"I have this picture on my wall at my house. It's a picture of a duck on a lake." Wing said. "The thing I think about all the time at work is being a duck on the water. Underneath, his legs are paddling really fast, but on the top, all you see is calm. That's what I really try to maintain—that even though my brain is going, I make sure that I'm calm on the outside. Calm, cool and collected."

When dealing with aggressive drug users that need to be restrained and sedated, handling wrecks involving multiple cars in the middle of the night and bringing people out of hysteria, that calm, cool collectedness is key. She often reminds herself the emergency she's dealing with is not her emergency.

Wing identifies herself first and foremost as a paramedic. The "About Me" section on her Facebook page is sparse: "I live and work in Boise, Idaho. I am a paramedic and I love my job."

When she leaves her station at the end of the shift, she makes an effort to leave her work behind, too. She doesn't socialize much with other paramedics outside of work and she keeps work-talk to a minimum with her husband. When she's off the clock she takes her two big mutts, Max and Moose, into the foothills or snowshoeing.

She said that it's important to keep herself happy and healthy while working such an intense and high-stress job.

Still, her colleagues' suicides haunt her.

"These are people who do my job," Wing said. "They're standing next to me, they're in my age bracket, they've been doing this as long as I have. So, what does it take to go from where I am to get to where they were? Is it that easy? Is it a cliff you fall off and you're just down there? "

After losing both Sellers and Peterson, Wing has developed a hyper-vigilance for the mental well being of her colleagues. If any of her co-workers go on rough calls, she's the first to ask, "You OK?"

"I think I'm a pretty active, young, healthy badass," she said, "but what does it take to get from here to there? I don't know."

'I Don't Get It'
A few days after Peterson's death, Ada County Paramedics held an organization-wide meeting to talk about it. The emergency service has 127 employees, 100 of whom are paramedics and EMTs working in 13 stations across the county.

The meeting was tearful and raw, according to Ada County Paramedics Public Information Officer Hadley Mayes.

"It was really important for us to come together and speak about this because it's such a hush-hush topic," Mayes said. "That's a huge problem. If we're afraid to speak out loud about [suicide], that's just going to perpetuate it. This is something that needs to be addressed head-on."

Exactly how to address it, though, isn't clear. The county offers work-life balance programs that include no-cost therapy for any and all county employees—if they decide to see a counselor, their meetings are private and not reported to supervisors.

While there are no hard numbers on the rate of suicide among paramedics, anecdotal evidence suggests its occurrence tends to be higher among first responders than the general public. According to Mayes, police, firefighters and EMTs have higher rates of suicide, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and divorce.

"It makes sense," she said. "Look at what they see every day."

But there's a big question leaving Ada County Paramedic administrators scratching their heads over the issue: If the help is offered, and employees decide not to take it, what else can be done?

Sellers' and Peterson's suicides prompted Mayes to write a blog post on the Ada County Paramedics' website, where she spoke frankly and directly about the issue. Ada County Paramedics responded to more than 2,000 mental health related calls in 2014, but to see their own employees falling victim to suicide is startling.

"As I sit here—I have to admit, in an administrative position with no EMS background—I don't get it," she wrote. "I work 9-5 with holidays and weekends off. ... I've never watched a child die. ... I've never been cussed out for just trying to do my job—just trying to help. I've never awoken in the wee hours of the morning to an alarm knowing I might be the solitary link between someone's life or death."

In her post, she pointed out that when paramedics and EMTs go home, their days at work don't make for dinnertime conversation. Few people outside their company understand what they go through, and that isolation can lead to silent suffering.

"These people are strong," she wrote. "They're independent and they don't show weakness—even if they're silently spiraling into a bad place."

Hundreds of EMS workers from around the region gathered April 6 for Peterson's funeral. He had worked with Ada County Paramedics since 2001. His death was the second suicide within the organization in a six-month period. - ANDREA D. COBLER
  • Andrea D. Cobler
  • Hundreds of EMS workers from around the region gathered April 6 for Peterson's funeral. He had worked with Ada County Paramedics since 2001. His death was the second suicide within the organization in a six-month period.
Brian and Donna
Brian Peterson's memorial took place on a warm spring day at the beginning of April. Hundreds of mourners gathered at the Barber Park Event Center beside the Boise River.

Nearly every employee of Ada County Paramedics not running 911 calls stood in uniform, each with a black band around their arm, as the bagpipes played. A team from the Magic Valley Paramedics attended, as well as the honor guard from Humboldt General Hospital in Winnemucca, Nev.; an ambulance crew from Payette County; members of the Ada County Sheriff's Department and Boise, Meridian, Eagle and Nampa fire departments; and retired paramedics.

Ada County Paramedics covered the cost of the funeral, using a fund for community needs paid into by employees. Peterson's family requested orange flowers. During the reception, ACDC's "Thunderstruck" played to a slideshow of photos.

Peterson was 40 when he died. He started his career with Ada County Paramedics in 2001, then worked at the Meridian Fire Department from 2005-2013, when he returned to Ada County Paramedics.

He is described as a quiet man with a mathematical mind. He loved the problem-solving aspects of paramedicine and didn't talk often but when he did, it was often a subtle quip.

"Sometimes Brian would tell a joke and you'd be five seconds behind, then: 'Oh! OK, that was a good one,'" said Ada County Paramedics Deputy Director Shawn Rayne. "He was quiet but when he would laugh, he would laugh. He loved to cut it up."

Growing up in Boise, Peterson enjoyed the hobbies of an outdoors lover: hiking, hunting, fishing, riding dirt bikes. He had an artistic side he expressed through photography and poetry. He liked to use long words. According to his obituary, a weekend of fun meant devouring a 1,000-page medical textbook.

He was a field training officer for Ada County, as well as a member of the Special Operations Team. He was certified in pediatric advancement life support, advanced care life support, rapid intervention and a rope rescue technician. He planned to enroll in the physician's assistant program at Washington State University.

Over and over again, Peterson was called "a great paramedic."

He left behind two children. He also left behind his beloved cat, Dexter.

Ada County Paramedics Director Darby Weston was shocked by Peterson's suicide.

"The last time I talked to him, he said, 'Yeah, I've got all this stuff going on, but I'm getting to the end of it and there are things I am enjoying and these are the things I plan on doing,'" Weston said. "He had a view forward of where he was going. I told him, 'You hit a few speed bumps, and you made it over the top of them, and I think you're doing OK.' When this happened, I had no idea he was pushed to that level."

Planning a memorial for someone you worked with is something no one ever wants to do, according to Mayes.

"And this is the second memorial service like this we've had to do in six months," she said.

Donna Sellers' service was smaller: Her family held a funeral for her in her California hometown. Her suicide was no less surprising than Peterson's.

Wing worked with her often and said she was a private person, but seemed happy.

"She was super healthy, always working out and eating all this healthy crap," Wing said. "We used to go to Target on shift in between calls and she'd be like, 'Oh! This is a cute skirt!' She was fun. We would joke on calls together. She was very much into being in control, like me. We'd have a patient coughing in the back of the ambulance and she'd be like, 'Cover your mouth, please.'"

Sellers was 43 when she died. She moved to Idaho in 1997 and worked as a flight paramedic with Life Flight before joining Ada County Paramedics. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in nursing shortly before her death.

Like Peterson and Wing, she was a lover of Idaho's wilderness. She fished and rode horses. She loved adventure. Her husband, son, mother and sister survived her. At the end of her obituary, it reads, "Girl, you will be missed."

In Weston's 30 years with Ada County Paramedics, he has experienced three co-worker suicides. The first took place in the early '90s. A friend and colleague of his had gone on a call involving a car accident. When they arrived on scene, the passenger couldn't be saved. The passenger happened to be Weston's colleague's next door neighbor growing up.

"He lasted here another nine months and quit EMS," Weston said. "A year later, he was dead from suicide."

Cases like that present a real problem when trying to determine the rate of suicide among paramedics, because so many of them take their lives after they've left the field.

"We identify who we are as what we do," Weston said. "We get those two things mixed up, and I think that's damaging. We have the same frailties as all other human beings. We need the same care that we're here to give."

The Achilles Heel
Paramedics view themselves as the fixers of the world, according to Weston. Rayne agrees.

When Rayne first started as a paramedic, he only hung out with other EMTs and paramedics. They're the only other people who "get it."

"And it's really fun," Rayne said. "When I first came on, I said I'd work as much as they wanted me to because it was really exciting, but after five years, I realized it had taken a toll. My entire group of friends were only paramedics. That view of the world becomes the only view you know."

Weston said that's a dangerous trap to fall into—one that can have profound effects on first responders' well being.

"We are invited to whatever catastrophe is happening at the moment," Weston said. "All of the sudden, the worst of what can happen to anyone is right on the plate in front of you, every day."

He said the general public views emergencies and disasters from a distance, seeing a story on TV or reading about it in the newspaper.

"That's a different view from being front-and-center in the middle of what's happened," Weston said. "And it's difficult to keep a distance, to understand this isn't the norm of the world."

Donna Sellers was a paramedic in the Treasure Valley for 17 years before she committed suicide on Sept. 6, 2014. Outgoing, active and energetic, her death came as a shock to her colleagues.
  • Donna Sellers was a paramedic in the Treasure Valley for 17 years before she committed suicide on Sept. 6, 2014. Outgoing, active and energetic, her death came as a shock to her colleagues.

That perception starts to work its way into all aspects of a paramedic's life. Weston remembered back to the year before his daughter was born. He went on 10 calls in which babies had fallen victim to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

That contributed to a high level of paranoia after his daughter was born.

"I kept that baby monitor 6 inches away from my head on full volume," he said. "If she made any noise whatsoever, I was wide awake and checking on her."

Weston said the calls that really stuck with him involved victims similar in age to his children. In his three decades with the county, he only ever had to leave his shift early after a hard call once.

"The issue wasn't the patient, the issue was me," he said. "I went on a call where an 18-month-old toddler had her throat cut on purpose in an attempt to kill her. My daughter was just a little bit older than that at the time. It was so far out of bounds for me that anything like that could ever happen in the world, let alone Boise, Idaho."

The girl survived the injury, but the images from that day still play vividly in Weston's mind.

He was also affected by a call where a 2-year-old had drowned in a hot tub, around the same time his daughter was that age.

"In that circumstance, you're working on your child in your mind," Weston said. "But I don't know what the difference was between me and Brian—why I was resilient and he wasn't."

When particularly traumatic calls likes those come in, Weston requires his paramedics to see a counselor within a few days. The paramedics who responded to Peterson after he completed his suicide were required to take the rest of the day off and speak to someone.

That someone is social worker and therapist Alan Leschinski.

Walking into the lobby of Leschinski's practice in Meridian, the walls are a calming beige, the furniture a chocolate brown and the lights dim. The environment would be a relaxing one, except for the rock music blasting from a stereo in the corner.

The music can even be heard through the wall in Leschinski's office, where he has mounted electric guitars. He wears jeans, a neon green polo shirt and plaid sneakers—of which he owns 60 pairs. Leschinski's speaks with a thick New Jersey accent and his arms and legs are covered in tattoos.

"I have a four-hour standing appointment with my tattoo artist once a month," he said. "It's therapy for me."

Leschinski is no sit-com therapist.

"I'm nowhere near Fraser Crane," he said. "As you can tell, I'm tattooed. I wear baseball hats, I say bad words, I ride a Harley. I understand life."

Leschinski is contracted by Ada County Paramedics and Garden City Police. He also works with the Meridian and Boise police departments, as well as smoke jumpers and dispatchers. A typical day includes 13 patients who he sees from 9 a.m.-11 p.m. He'll make appointments on Sundays if someone is in crisis. He goes on ride-alongs with first responders around the valley, to "understand the rhythm of the city."

Helping first responders has been Leschinski's passion for 40 years but took on a new urgency after 9/11, when he lived in New York City.

"See, out here, 9/11 was a TV show. For us, it was real. We could see the smoke," he said.

"When it happened, I realized this was a population [first responders] that needed someone who could understand them without judging them," Leschinski added. "9/11 got me to think about who's taking care of us. We forget those people. Who helps them when they're really struggling?"

Leschinski said the people who see him aren't pathological. They just need to adjust and learn coping skills that will allow them to keep getting in the rig, call after call, day after day.

First, Weston makes a gentle request that a paramedic see Leschinski after a hard call. If Leschinski doesn't hear from the paramedic, Weston will urge again. Appointments like these are mandatory.

Once they're in, Leschinski asks about the call and tries to find out why it was more troubling than normal.

"It's not the blood and gore," he said. "Somewhere, there's an Achilles' heel. Everybody has one. I try to root around and find out why this is your Achilles' heel."

For Weston, it was calls involving little girls. For Wing, she hates to see dogs left behind when their owners are in crisis.

In his sessions, Leschinski urges his patients to "get back to the healthy things." Go outside, play with your kids. Please, please, don't drink alcohol, that'll only make everything worse. He helps them build a recovery system.

A few days later he schedules a follow-up appointment to see how they're doing. If everything seems good, he OK's them to go back to work. He said he never saw Peterson or Sellers, though.

"I think that a lot of people can slip through the cracks," he said. "There's always going to be somebody, no matter what you do. There's always going to be someone."

Backpacks
Weston believes a fundamental shift is needed in what it means to be a paramedic, but the stigma of seeking therapy or counseling is strong.
Quiet, focused and intelligent, Peterson was part of Ada County Paramedics' Special Operations Team and a certified rope rescue technician.
  • Quiet, focused and intelligent, Peterson was part of Ada County Paramedics' Special Operations Team and a certified rope rescue technician.

Wing can relate to that. She said it's not just mental health problems first responders avoid. A few years ago, she was skiing at Bogus Basin and got a concussion.

"I don't remember any of it, but my friends said I kept saying, 'Do not call the ambulance.' Being a patient in the back of an ambulance was the last thing I wanted," she said. "I wasn't even thinking clearly, but I did not want to be in the ambulance. I did not want to be on the patient side of things."

To help break down such barriers, Rayne has a spiel he occasionally gives to Ada County EMS and paramedics.

"Each of us is wearing a backpack," he said to his organization at the meeting held after Peterson's death.

"Every time you go out on a call, you're putting a little bit of weight in your backpack. Eventually, that backpack gets pretty full. You can buy a bigger backpack, but all you're going to do is carry around more weight with you.

"We're trying to take some of the weight out of that backpack," he said. "Help us help you unload some of that backpack so you can keep going in the future."

In order to continue emptying each "backpack," Weston and Rayne are looking into different peer support models, so that if paramedics feel intimidated or embarrassed talking to superiors they can turn to each other instead and still get the help they need.

"We have to change what it means to be a paramedic," Weston said. "We have to change the identity piece that keeps you from getting the help that you need with mental health. It's no different than getting the help you need with cardiology or anything else."

One organization working hard to change the perceived barriers to seeking help is the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline. ISPH Executive Director John Reusser said he is starting to see progress in that regard.

ISPH finished its first quarter this year with the highest call volume since it went live in 2012. The hotline received 1,123 calls January-March. Reusser sees that as a positive thing, showing people are becoming more aware and more willing to call in times of crisis.

Reusser strongly disagrees with the idea that people will always fall through the cracks.

"It'll take a big cultural change," he said, "but we're working on a Zero Suicide initiative."

He said research shows paramedics may have a higher rate of suicide because seeing traumatic experiences can decrease a person's resistance to harming themselves over time. It's a phenomenon called "acquired capability for self-harm."

"Just being exposed to the pain and trauma of others increases a person's risk for self harm and their ability to do it," Reusser said. "There is a tendency in the community of first responders to think they're bulletproof, so they are less likely to ask for help and support. We need to change that."

Despite all the trauma and hardships first responders face, Weston said the job is worth it.

"That little kid that fell in the hot tub, she was dead. She was gray, flaccid; put her on the monitor, flatline—dead," he said. "Thirty minutes later, she's grabbing onto my finger as we pull into St. Luke's. There's nothing cooler in life. It doesn't exist."

Ada County Paramedics will continue to look into resources to keep their employees healthy and happy. No one can stand to see another incident like Peterson's or Sellers'.

The EMS organization has also decided to use this as an opportunity to remind other Idahoans that help is out there.

Ada County Paramedics teamed up with ISPH and created a public service announcement for 94.9 The River, 100.3 X Rocks, 105.1 Variety Rock and 107.1 KHits.

"We want to use this horrible tragedy as a platform to speak openly and frankly about suicide and getting help if you feel yourself slipping," Mayes said.

At the end of the PSA, a voice states, "In the memory of Ada County Paramedic Brian Peterson."

If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or suicidal crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK.