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Opioid crisis weighs heavily on Red Deer paramedics, dispatchers

Mental health programs are offered to relieve stress
(Advocate file photo.)

Repeat drug overdose calls to Red Deer’s Emergency Services are taking an emotional toll on paramedics and dispatchers.

Tyler Pelke, acting chief of Red Deer’s Emergency Services, admits that working in a city with the highest per capita opioid deaths in Alberta “wears on your emotions.”

The city’s paramedic/firefighters are used to dealing with one-off calls, such as car crash injuries or heart attacks.

Being called to the same address on multiple occasions to save the same person’s life by administering naloxone to reverse an opioid overdose, introduces a different element, says Pelke.

“It’s distressing. Our responders are part of the fabric of the community. They like to feel they are making a difference.”

But in these cases, paramedics sense they aren’t really helping an individual in the long run: “They can intervene, but these people need more than just us,” adds Pelke.

“And occasionally, you can’t revive someone…”

Red Deer had 47 opioid-related deaths in 2018, compared to 23 in 2017, becoming a city with the worst overdose death rate in the province.

Robb Cook, a paramedic and president of the Red Deer firefighters Local 1190, says stress is part of the job, but accidental drownings and serious car accidents don’t happen with the frequency of opioid overdoses in Red Deer.

“You get to know some of these (drug addicts), not on a personal, but on a work basis,” says Cook.

“You know that whatever has taken them down this road is dark … so you feel compassion for them. They also have family and loved ones…”

With the additional stress the opioid crisis is causing, the department is offering Emergency Services workers a range of stress-relieving options, including a revamped peer counselling program.

Cook said most of his colleagues would rather talk to someone who has gone through the same experiences.

“It’s comforting to know that they know what you’re talking about.”

Would-be peer counsellors must be evaluated for suitability by a company that also works with the Wounded Warriors program for former soldiers, since not everyone is equipped to take on another person’s troubles as well as their own, said Cook.

Pelke said critical incidents stress teams are available to give debriefing sessions after tough calls to reduce the emotional strain on paramedics and dispatchers. Members needing more help have several therapy and mental health counselling options.

There are also programs geared toward building general emotional resilience and providing the “skills and tools” needed to cope with stress.

Cook feels it’s important to not let the “frustration” of being unable to help many drug users over the longer term turn into an ongoing emotional problem, since emergency workers must be in good physical and mental shape to do their job.

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