CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - A paramedic who has been diagnosed with PTSD told 19 Investigates he is overcome with emotion, now that the city of Cleveland is recognizing the disorder’s effect on EMS crews.
This comes years after they started fighting for mental health coverage on the job.
Mental health help is now on the way for Cleveland paramedics, EMT's and dispatchers when they need it.
A union contract for Cleveland EMS just passed, under an agreement out of court that still needs to be ratified by city council.
It addresses "mental health trauma" which includes PTSD.
19 Investigates has been following this fight for mental health coverage for more than a year.
Michael Thomas Wagar, known as Woody, has been a paramedic for nearly 30 years.
He has spent the past 20 years with Cleveland EMS.
“I absolutely love being a paramedic. When I first started this in Atlanta, I felt like it was what I was supposed to,” Wagar said, with tears in his eyes.
But he's carrying around a lot of baggage from the job he loves.
“I’m not afraid, I have PTSD. A lot of us do,” he said. Wagar sought help, but it’s a battle that he still fights.
Calls on the job can trigger it anytime.
“I call it my satchel full of nightmares. And I can deal with it now,” he said.
Now he is finally getting recognition from his employer—the city of Cleveland—for him and his coworkers going through the same thing.
“I’m glad finally that they’re recognizing PTSD is a real, tangible condition that many of us have,” he said.
Cleveland EMS, through its union, CARE Local 1975, has been fighting for this for years.
The city of Cleveland had challenged mental health language in the pending union contract.
“There used to be a stigma. You would bury that stuff, go on about your job,” Wagar said.
Now months later, this is a big win for EMS crews.
A definition for "mental health trauma" outlines when that protocol can be triggered and what calls qualify for crews.
For example, the call may have dealt with someone a paramedic knew who was killed, including a family member or a coworker, or it may have involved a child.
Other qualifying calls include incidents involving multiple deaths or casualties or involving criminal assault on an employee or his or her partner while on duty.
If the call doesn’t meet those stipulations, a supervisor can still put the paramedic into the Employment Assistance Process, or EAP program.
“We’re just asking for help, when we can,” Wagar said. The new policy allows more time for crews to process traumatic calls, with up to three shifts of paid leave.
During that time, crews have to see a psychologist.
“I think it’s very fair, it’s a pretty strict and stringent thing to go through, but I think it’s fair for everybody,” Wagar said.
He believes this will make him a better person-- at home, with his wife, daughter and granddaughter.
And better able to help you, when you need it the most.
“This PTSD language and this PTSD treatment is going to make me a better paramedic, a better husband and a better father to them. Because if I’m toting these nightmares and dreams around, and not concentrating and not doing anything about that, I cannot be a paramedic, I cannot be a husband, I cannot be a father,” Wagar said.
The union believes Cleveland EMS may be among the first in the nation to have an outlined policy regarding these mental health protections.
They hope it will be a model for other agencies.