Chicago paramedics need our help to save their own lives

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Paramedics rush away a gunshot victim after a shooting in South Chicago in February, 2016. | Brian Jackson/For Sun-Times Media

Twelve people were killed and 71 shot in Chicago over the weekend. More than 1,700 people have been shot so far this year. And almost every time, Chicago paramedics are on the scene trying to save lives.

When a man used a knife to nearly decapitate the head of his 2-year-old son, Chicago paramedics responded.


At every horrific traffic accident, each time a teenager overdoses on heroin, when a baby is physically abused, or someone’s flesh is burned in a fire, the paramedics are there trying to save a life.

Yet, to my amazement, nobody has ever done a study of the toll taken by the stress on their lives.

There is no medically trained mental health expert (psychiatrist or psychologist) employed full-time by the Chicago Fire Department to monitor their well-being.

As one field supervisor told me, there is no mandatory class, no significant training, to help paramedics identify the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or help supervisors deal with people suffering from such symptoms.

“I tell them to take the day off and go home,” said Patrick Fitzmaurice, a Chicago paramedic field chief who supervises nine ambulances and 18 people.

“I need some training in not only how to identify people who may be suffering from PTSD, but what to say to them,” he said. “We need to have a plan to deal with this and there is absolutely no plan.”

As Frank Crossin, coordinator of the fire department union assistance program, told me, “We were all required to take a four-hour class on how to put out a pallet fire when I was in the department, but there were no mandatory classes like that on PTSD.”

Crossin is one of four retired firefighters working for the union two days a week, six hours a day, to provide guidance to more than 5,000 firefighters and paramedics. The fire department employs two trained clinical social workers full-time to help (although neither is trained in mental health care).

There are also three chaplains on call (a priest, a minister and a rabbi).

Fitzmaurice remembered a call he responded to early in his career after a woman literally boiled her children in a bathtub.

“You never forget something like that,” he said. “She had poured pots of boiling water in a bath tub.”

Day after day, year after year, the paramedics of Chicago see the worst of humanity.

They hear the cries of relatives begging them to save the lives of their sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers.

A former female paramedic told me about the problems she faced coping with stress after seeing a firefighter die.

“I didn’t know what was happening to me, but I began feeling dizzy, disoriented on the job,” she said. “I was afraid to talk to anyone about it because when you’re a woman on the job the men always seem to be looking for signs of weakness and you don’t want to show that.

“You also fear that self-reporting will eventually go on your record and you could lose your job or be reassigned. I loved my job. I didn’t want to lose my job. And by your very nature, firefighters and paramedics aren’t the kind of people who want to admit weakness.”

It would have helped had she had any training in how to spot and deal with job-related stress. She said she didn’t.

Yet, the Chicago Fire Department relies heavily on such self-reporting and peer counseling to identify first responders who may be in trouble.

Referrals to mental health experts outside the department are made when people go through channels, but no one has a clue how often that doesn’t happen.

Dan DeGryse, a Chicago fire department battalion chief, apparently is the only person to have conducted any sort of study on the impact of stress on Chicago firefighters. A director of the Rosecrance Florian Program that deals with drug and alcohol abuse involving uniformed personnel, he was startled by a string of seven suicides in 18 weeks among firefighters and 11 over 2 ½ years, several years back.

“There was no national study, no research on this topic,” DeGryse told me. “There needs to be more done. It’s not just what happens to people on the job, but their home lives. There are domestic issues. Marriages break up. There are problems with children.”

And there is alcohol and substance abuse, which may increase the stress, or may be caused by the relentless pressure at work.

There needs to be academic research on the impact of stress on Chicago paramedics. There needs to be a baseline mental health analysis conducted so evidence of stress can be tracked over years. And mental health professionals ought to be employed to make this a real priority within the Chicago Fire Department.

People keep telling me there is no money in the budget. The lives of the people who save our lives need to be protected. We owe them that.


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