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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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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."