Marie-Julie Cosenzo is daunted by the thought of crossing the bridge into Gatineau.
“Just going to Hull even is very difficult for me. It just brings back too much pain,” Cosenzo said.
Cosenzo, who lives in Ottawa and has been a paramedic with the Coopérative des Paramédics de l’Outaouais for almost nine years, hasn’t been at work since last Oct. 3 after responding to a traumatic call.
It was for a 17-year-old boy who died by suicide.
“We got there, it was chaos. Firefighters, police,” Cosenzo said. “You go into autopilot and afterwards you deal.”
But the frenzy was too much for Cosenzo.
“I felt myself go out of autopilot,” she said, and the torment caught up with her later while cleaning the ambulance.
“I’ve always prided myself at being strong, keeping it together, a pillar of strength. And I was crying in the truck. It was past midnight. I thought, ‘I couldn’t go home right now.’ “
There wasn’t much of a debriefing for staff.
“There’s still a huge stigma around mental illness. It’s alive and well,” Cosenzo said.
Cosenzo will be volunteering for the Heroes are Human Capital-to-Capital Ride, which will raise awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder in first responders. The bike ride starts Saturday in Ottawa. On May 14, the riders will link up with the National EMS Memorial Bike Ride in Boston and continue to Arlington, Va., just outside of Washington. The 1,583-kilometre trip will take 15 days.
Ottawa paramedic Norm Robillard is helping organize the ride to bring more understanding to the stress first responders endure.
“It’s about awareness that mental health problems are real,” Robillard said. “Too many of them have turned to suicide to end their struggles. The message is to continue to break down the stigma. No one should suffer in silence.”
Funds left over from the operational cost of the ride will be donated to the Code Green Campaign in the U.S. and the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, which provides Canadian public safety workers with supports to deal with post-traumatic disorder and operational stress. According to the Tema Conter website, 16 first responders and five military members have died by suicide in 2016, with 39 first responders and 12 military members taking their own lives in 2015.
Some first responders are travelling to Ottawa from across North America to start the ride in the Canadian capital.
For George Rice, it will be the first time he leaves the U.S. The 52-year-year old works for the emergency services department in Columbia, S.C., and just received his passport a couple of weeks ago. His bike is boxed up, ready to be shipped to Ottawa.
Rice, 52, has had several friends in emergency services die by suicide. He’ll ride from Ottawa to Boston to spread the message to colleagues on both sides of the border that they’re never alone.
“The bottom line is, every public safety person works very hard to stay physically fit, but you have to be emotionally fit to do your job, too,” Rice said. “We want every person in public safety to know there are ways stay emotionally fit.”
Rod Koehn, a veteran medic who lives in Maine, is joining the riders in Vermont.
Koehn was a helicopter medic in 1989 when he responded to a traffic collision in Iowa. After picking up a seriously injured patient and heading back to the hospital, something went wrong with the helicopter and it dropped like a rock onto a cornfield. The force of the impact broke the skids of the helicopter. The flight nurse broke her back. The pilot wasn’t injured. The patient died before a transfer to a land ambulance was possible.
A back injury forced Koehn to miss six months of work, but his mental wounds never healed.
“I just psychologically couldn’t do it again,” Koehn, 59, said. “I worked very hard to get in that place, to be flight medic. That was the hardest thing. To walk away from it.”
Koehn, who has been a long-distance biker all of his life, wants people to understand that it takes special people to be first responders, but they can hurt like anyone else.
“We’re not heroes. We’re just humans,” Koehn said.
“If we don’t be our own preachers and stand on our soapbox, nobody is going to hear us.”
The passage of time has helped Cosenzo, a 35-year-old married mother of two, talk openly about her experience coping with the mental trauma from the suicide call.
“It’s been almost seven months. That has helped,” Cosenzo said. “But what helped the most was when I accepted it. This winter was really dark. I was in hardcore denial.”
An event last February in Toronto where former NHLer Theo Fleury was speaking was a turning point for Cosenzo. Fleury was holding conversations with groups about healing from trauma. She met people who were going through the same turmoil.
About a month ago, Cosenzo became “fed up of hiding” and posted a message on Facebook to explain what she’s been going through.
“I wasn’t winning by pretending I was OK,” she said.
Cosenzo wants to make sure other first responders get help if their trauma lingers. It’s a message she’ll spread when she’s watching colleagues leave Ottawa next weekend for the first leg of the bike ride through Gatineau.
“It’s OK not to be OK. You’re not doing anybody favours by suffering in silence, including yourself,” Cosenzo said.
“People around you will be grateful you did it.”