Good afternoon, honourable members of Parliament and your staff, members of the Standing Committee on Health, analysts, proceedings and verification officers, and honourable chairperson.
My name is Natalie Harris, and it is my pleasure to have this opportunity to share with you how important MP Todd Doherty's Bill C-211 is to myself and to so many first responders, veterans, military personnel, and corrections officers across Canada. Establishing a national framework to address the challenges of recognizing the symptoms and providing timely diagnosis and treatment of post-traumatic stress is essential to saving the lives of those who passionately care for and protect the citizens of this great country every day.
It has always been easy for me to share that I'm an advanced care paramedic with the County of Simcoe in Ontario and the mom of two beautiful children, Caroline and Adam, but it's only been over the last two years with the support of my family and friends that I have developed the courage to share that I also battle post-traumatic stress disorder and attempted to take my own life in 2014 when I had no hope of getting the treatment and support I needed to survive.
You may be wondering to yourselves what in the world this seemingly normal girl could possibly teach you today. I may not be representing an organization, but that's okay, because what I do represent is very important. I sit here before you representing what could be your sister, mother, daughter, wife, friend, or partner, who may be silently battling a world of darkness all on her own because she is too afraid to ask for help for fear of no longer being able to do the job she so dearly loves, for fear of being ridiculed and labelled with mental health stigma for the rest of her life, and for fear of not being heard.
In October 2014, PTSD had caused me to live in a world filled with fear and sadness that constantly undervalued my fundamental necessity to breathe. It caused me to live in a world filled with darkness, distorted thinking, and illogical reasoning. It caused me to live in a world that harboured powerful voices that told me that I should hurt myself because I was worthless, and that everyone would be better off without me. In October 2014, PTSD caused me to know for certain that I was going to take my own life. On that dreaded day, after swallowing half a bottle of muscle relaxants, I wrote a letter to whoever would find me, “I'm so sorry. You will be okay. I love you.” I then swallowed the rest of the bottle.
I started feeling tired. I knew the medicine was working. I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, more numb than I'd ever been in my life, while I was literally waiting to die. I remember feeling sick, and somehow in my haze I made it to the bathroom. That's all I remember. For all I knew, I would never wake up again. For all I knew, I was dead.
What I didn't know was that my colleagues had found me and brought me to the hospital where I remained unconscious for 12 hours. The doctors and nurses pumped litres of fluid into me with the hope of saving my liver. As the hours went by, my abdomen grew full of fluid, and I turned jaundiced as evidence that my liver couldn't keep up.
My family and friends were seriously discussing funeral plans for me, but somehow I survived. It wasn't time for me to leave this planet quite yet. I still had some pretty important work to do, which has brought me here today.
I went to school in 2001 to become a paramedic. Not long after graduating, I was hired by a service. Going to work was like a dream come true, even during SARS, which is when I was hired. Not very many people can say that about their careers. I learned something new every day, was financially stable, and made such a difference in people's lives. I was in my glory, but no matter how much I loved it, each year became a bit tougher for me to cope with, and I didn't know why.
Through difficult calls, I would silently say to myself, “I'm not going to let this amazing career slip away from me. I've fought too hard. I've conquered so many difficult circumstances in my life. I'm sure I'll be okay,” but secretly I began to develop a repertoire of illusions used to hide my true emotions even from myself. Back then, I barely knew what post-traumatic stress was, because we didn't learn about it in school.
I started to see tiny changes in myself in the early years, as days just seemed to go by and calls just happened to add up. I could let most calls move through me in a healthy way, but looking back now I can recognize the deterioration of my coping skills as life as a quiet paramedic took its toll.
Over the years, while being a full-time paramedic, I literally became very comfortable with uncomfortable. I became acclimatized to living a life that included horrific memories, relentless nightmares, and ingrained images of sadness and pain. That may sound barbaric to anyone who is not in the emergency services field, but it is literally a part of our lives almost daily.
Devil's advocates out there may be saying to themselves that we signed up for it, but we didn't. We signed up for an amazing career that allows us to help people on an extraordinary level. No one signed up for mental turmoil. We signed up for the chance to save people's lives. No one signed up for memories of patients screaming in pain. We signed up for achieving educational goals. No one signed up for drowning our sorrows in vices.
We thought we would be strong enough to avoid being uncomfortable, but no one is. Strength isn't measured by the number of deaths we pronounce. It's measured by the number of deaths we recognize we need to talk about in order to sleep at night. First responders are some amazing people, but signing up to be one didn't mean we signed our hearts away.
It's not normal to have a person ask you to just take their leg and arm off because they were experiencing so much pain from being trapped in a car with multiple open fractures all over their body. It's not normal to learn that the patient who hanged himself the night before had a second noose waiting for his wife, had his son not called 911 at the right time. It's not normal to witness a young woman, seven months pregnant, rub her belly with the only limb that could move as she had a stroke that would leave her disabled. It's not normal to see the cellphone on the road beside the obviously dead driver, crushed between the pavement and the car, who was texting and driving, and it's not normal to know he made the three sisters in the other car now two. It's not normal to experience and see the look of true evil when you learn how two innocent women were murdered. It's not normal to be handed a baby who's blue. It's not normal to watch a child have a seizure for 30 minutes because your drugs just wouldn't work. It's not normal to see someone die before your eyes more times than you can actually count.
What we do isn't normal, so why would we think it's okay to be comfortable with that? Why would it be any surprise to hear that first responders are dying every month because they can't take their often hidden memories any longer? I'm uncomfortable with how comfortable we've become.
Honourable members of the committee, we can't wait any longer to acknowledge and act upon the cries of heroes and their families that are happening right now coast to coast. They need Canada to step up to the plate and value their sacrifices in the form of education and support.
So much more needs to be done to prevent the deaths of community heroes, and MP Todd Doherty's Bill C-211 is where this can start. It's on the table, and we can't push it aside. If we do, time wasted will equal lives lost.
I would like to end my testimony by sharing a poem I wrote in memory of my friend and colleague Bob Cooke who died by suicide in September, 2014. We miss Bob, and we will never forget you.
I wish you'd see, but never feel, This illness dark, to some not real. I wish you'd know, it hurts to breathe, My lungs collapse, when comfort leaves. I wish you'd cast my scars away, Repair the marks I formed each day. I wish that answers existed near, To rid my soul of unfounded fear. I wish each tear was never there, They drown my courage left to care. I wish I'm brave enough to smile, Sustain down heartache's endless mile. I wish you'd camouflage each sting, The blackness seems to always bring. I wish I knew I'd be ok, Believe tomorrow's a brighter day. But I can wish with all my might, It won't discount this ceaseless fight. This wish will sail up to the sky, With all the rest who've said good-bye. I'll wish tomorrow, just for hope, Or conjure up some way to cope. Through darkness black, I'll make my way, Exist again another day. I wish...
I never had the opportunity to choose to hang up my uniform. Sadly, PTSD made this decision for me. I plead with you today to move forward with this bill and put Canada on the map with respect to having the best national framework for our heroes so that every uniform can be hung up when the time is right, with the hero's choice.
At this time I would like to present you, the committee, my own dress uniform. I hung that uniform up in my closet quite some time ago. I wasn't able to even look at it until yesterday. I was so sad, hurt, and heartbroken that I needed to end the job that I loved so dearly and still miss to this day. I'm asking you to please take care of my dress uniform. When this bill is moved forward, and we actually get to work on saving those lives coast to coast, would you please give it to MP Todd Doherty, so that he can keep it in his care?
Thank you for your time.