BALTIMORE (WJZ) — They run straight toward danger, first on the scene when tragedy strikes. They witness life and death firsthand, and risk their lives for us…but who is there to help them?
“We ask them to do super human things, and they’re human.”
Firefighters have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, but the danger is more than just physical.
“I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” said Eric Fessenden, a retired Montgomery County firefighter, “I didn’t understand why I was in such a funk.”
Fessenden says he vividly remembers the worst tragedies as though they happened yesterday. He remembers when grief took over his life.
“You can’t find any joy in your life,” Fessenden said, “everything that was joyful and fun and made you feel accomplished, is just gone.”
Fessenden went to the Center of Excellence, created by the International Association of Fire Fighters, a first-of-its-kind inpatient center for post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. Abby Morris is the director of the facility in Prince George’s County.
“You take a person who is human, who is as vulnerable as we are, and you ask them to day after day go into fires and attend horrible car accidents, to take someone who has hung themselves off of that, all while someone behind them is creaming ‘my baby,'” said Dr. Morris.
The center, which has 60 beds, has been open for one year, and has seen incredible success treating firefighters with PTSD.
“It’s better than anything I expected,” said Dr. Morris.
Treatment lasts 30 to 60 days with 18 months of follow up. We now know that 1 in 5 firefighters and paramedics will suffer from PTSD during their career, and in a culture when being “tough” is a badge of honor, 92 percent said “stigma” stops them from seeking treatment.
“Five years ago, I would go to a firehouse and nobody would say anything,” said Eric Fessenden, one of the first to be treated at the center, “Now I go to a firehouse and people are openly talking about what’s bothering them, and that’s fantastic.”
Fessenden said he was changed within “hours” of arriving at the treatment facility.
“I am a completely different person and in a much better place,” Fessenden said. “I didn’t even know who ‘Eric’ was, and they helped me find ‘Eric'”.
At the center, they learn to fight a different battle.
“We’re human beings who were given a gift by God to want to serve other people,” Fessenden says,”and everybody has a right to be happy.”
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