Death Takes A Toll: Bill Helps First Responders with PTSD
Former Orlando police officer Gerry Realin isn't the same since he spent five hours in the Pulse nightclub among the bodies of those killed in what was then the nation's deadliest mass shooting.He's been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and sometimes still thinks he smells the dead bodies that lay in the hot club as police processed the crime scene. The once fun, mischievous practical joker now is a recluse. He rarely goes out, and when he does, it's to paddleboard alone to enjoy nature or to spend time at a park with his wife and children. He avoids crowds.
"My husband isn't the same person he was before June 12, 2016," said his wife, Jessica Realin. "I get very rare glimpses of who he was. I'm mourning the loss of who he was then, and I'm falling in love with the person he is now."
She's convinced if he was given treatment for his PTSD immediately, he'd be in a much better place. But his insurance company said the psychological treatment he needed was a workers' compensation issue, and the city said workers' compensation doesn't cover PTSD — only physical injuries. So now she's pushing Florida lawmakers to pass a bill that would expand workers' compensation benefits for first responders who suffer from PTSD.
"I think we would be having a different conversation," Realin said. "Early detection and early treatment can make a big difference when you're dealing with something that has to do with the brain."
The House sponsor of the bill is Democratic Rep. Matt Willhite, whose fulltime job is serving as a captain at Palm Beach County Fire Rescue. The bill also would require pre-employment screening of first responders for PTSD and training on mental health awareness, prevention, treatment and mitigation.
It's not just events like the Pulse massacre that can trigger PTSD, and it doesn't just affect police officers. Lawmakers have heard stories from the spouses and relatives of firefighters who have taken their own lives after repeatedly witnessing horrific scenes as the first to respond to an emergency.
Willhite knows firsthand how firefighters and paramedics are subject to traumatic scenes that often are never publicized.
"A lot of things don't make the newspaper. The first week in January I ran a call on a mother who called because her 5-week-old was not breathing. I held that baby in my hands," he said. "I had to stand in the emergency room where the doctor told the mother that they could do no more. To see my crew visibly shaken up by that, the press never heard about that. That's just a daily thing that happens in the life of first responders."
Willhite said that the constant exposure to bad events takes a toll, especially in a profession where many have the attitude that they just have to suck up the pain.
"It's inherently in our nature where we want to help and take care of people, and if we can't we have a feeling of failure," he said. "We take these issues and we're supposed to bottle them up inside and never talk about them and think about them and think that they'll never bother us."
That was the case with David Dangerfield, who took his own life after leaving a warning for other firefighters about the dangers of PTSD. His wife Leslie has been urging lawmakers to pass the bill by telling the story about how the man she loved changed after 27 years of seeing death firsthand, including having to carry the body of a teenager out of the ocean after he'd been decapitated by a shark.
Through tears, Dangerfield read lawmakers his last Facebook post, which he wrote just before taking his life.
"PTSD for firefighters is real. If your loved one is experiencing signs, get them help quickly. Twenty-seven years of deaths and babies dying in your hands is a memory that you will never get rid of. It haunted me daily until now," she read. "One day you or a loved one will need a first responder. They are always there to take care of you. Who is willing take care of them?"