Heroes are Human. This is the tag line for one of my favourite charities, the Tema Conter Memorial Trust. I had the honour of MC’ing an awareness event at the BC Department of Justice Paramedic Training Centre in Kelowna last week. It was a very small role in a huge drama that is finally getting the attention it deserves and I wanted to add my voice to the call for change.
In 2000, Vince Savoia (one of my favourite human beings) was a financial planner working for himself in a suburb of Toronto and as successful as he was, something was missing from his life…peace. He didn’t know it but Vince was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Twelve years earlier, he was about to graduate from school as a Paramedic, a dream come true. As Vince will tell you, all he wanted to do was help people and save lives. It is a common dream and an admirable profession. Unfortunately, the dream became a nightmare one night when Vince and his partner in training were sent to a homicide in one of the more violent areas of Toronto. They knew it was not urgent as the victim was dead but as an older protocol of the time, it was their job to attend to the body, ascertain death officially and remove the body. They were new to the field but had been well trained. Yet what Vince couldn’t have predicted was how he reacted at the scene and it was not a pleasant scene. The victim was a 25 year old woman who had been stabbed multiple times in her own apartment by a stranger and violent criminal. Her name was Tema Conter.
Where this goes is Vince’s story and for more information you can Google Tema Conter Memorial Trust but when I heard Vince tell me what happened, it gave me a shiver so I can only imagine what it must have been like to be there. Tema bore an eerie resemblance to Vince’s fiance! Of course, these professionals are trained to disconnect from the personal and do the job and I truly can’t understand how that is even possible but on a much simpler note, many people are terrified of speaking and I don’t even think about it but I digress. Just imagine? The thing is, Vince and his partner did their job and never talked about it. Vince himself went on like nothing happened but the event would be his undoing eventually leading to his resigning and pursuing a career in Financial Planning. That’s how we met.
I was speaking at an event for Mackenzie Financial in Toronto and Vince reached out after pursuing me for a gig. It wasn’t a typical engagement. It is quite common for people in financial services to put on client appreciation events and I have spoken at a lot of these. Vince didn’t want such a gig. He wanted to pay for me to speak at his daughter’s school. It surprised me but I didn’t know the man. Today, it doesn’t surprise me at all.
In 2000, Vince contacted the family of Tema Conter asking if he could do something unorthodox. Again, pursue the whole story at your leisure but Vince had never met the family, had never connected. He had also been to countless other calls as a first-responder before he quit but none of them had effected him like finding Tema. He just had to do something but didn’t know what. After several discussions, Vince created a memorial trust in Tema’s name and its focus would be on paramedics in training. He didn’t blame his own schooling but the lack of training on PTSD was shocking so Vince had a plan to change that.
Vince called me for another gig but not at his daughter’s school. He was putting on a glitzy formal gala to raise money for the Trust. It would be in Toronto and among the guests would be movers and shakers from the city’s paramedic community but also include police and fire and I would be the dinner speaker. The event was amazing…and humbling. I always respected emergency responders. I even wanted to be a fireman when I was a kid but ladders were a problem. Actually, I didn’t want to climb ladders, just drive the truck! Nevertheless, I felt the amazing energy of the room before I even knew what that was (Darlene has educated me since then) but it was the dark side that was most compelling.
Canadian Olympian, Clara Hughes is cycling across Canada as we speak. Her campaign, “Let’s Talk” sponsored by Bell is raising money but more important, awareness on Mental Health. It seems unfathomable that some day, talking about mental health will be as common as talking about the weather but we aren’t there yet. By the way, I didn’t just change subjects…they are the same.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is becoming a very familiar phrase but what started the dialogue were returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. It goes without saying that War is Hell and what soldiers see shouldn’t be seen but allow me an observation: Seeing anything horrific related to human carnage is bound to affect one and ironically, nobody is immune. We assume that if you are sent to the front, you are prepared for the ordeal and while soldiers are trained, they are still human. It probably didn’t surprise anyone when veterans would break down recalling the loss of a colleague(s) but we would chalk it up to “war”. Well, what’s so different about what first responders see? They are in a similar battle…with themselves! And with their mind!
As of this writing, Canada and the RCMP are mourning the loss of three members who were gutlessly gunned down by an obvious psychotic in Moncton New Brunswick on June 4th. Clearly, this was very disturbing event and it is impossible to not want revenge. As Darlene and I discussed, how hard must it have been for the Mounties who found the perpetrator to not just put a bullet in his head? But they didn’t. There were professionals and they “got their man”. But this is no Dudley Do Right cartoon and these professionals are at the heart of the matter, still people. The Mounties murdered…people. People with partners, parents, children and on and on. Obviously their deaths are tragic but as Darlene added…”That’s the job!” You may not know this, but before Darlene and I met, she was married to a member of the RCMP and although that marriage didn’t last, she often has mentioned to me what it was like living with a cop. Knowing that at any time, tragedy could strike, and it sadly did in Moncton. But this blog isn’t about that.
In fact, as sad as it is to lose a first responder on their job, it is perhaps more complicated for the living to exist with PTSD. Remember, the mental health challenge of PTSD isn’t just about the person living with it, it is also about the people living with that person. Even more bizarre, but understandable, not every person suffering from the condition suffers the same way. But here’s the biggest part of this saga.
Like any discussion on mental health, it is the stigma. It is time for that to change! All of us, and I mean ALL OF US need to learn more about mental health issues, including PTSD. Not only would we be in a better position to help those around us suffering, and we all know someone, but it could actually help prevent future incidents. Who knows? If this sick young man in Moncton would have talked about his illness, three heroes might still be with us.
Vince Savoia and his team have stood up for something truly profound. To remove the stigma, research the problem and with all the hope there is, find a solution for those suffering from PTSD. They are after all…Human.