Paying the Price for Saving Lives- Part 2

Local EMT opens up about her struggles with PTSD

A walk through the woods with camera in hand, takes Stephanie Forrer Harbridge to a place of peace and quiet.

Stephanie says, “it gives me something else to think about.”

It takes her away from the noise that often clouds her thoughts.

“Some days I feel like I take 5 steps ahead and sometimes I feel like I take 20 steps back.”

She uses photography as an escape that helps replace the haunting images of her day job with those of nature’s beauty. “Just to go to someplace else,” says Stephanie.

“It’s like I’ve got an actual tangible thing that I can picture in my head when I start to think about stuff I don’t want to think about.”

When she’s not snapping photos, Stephanie is saving lives as an EMT with Camp Douglas Rescue. “I’m with people at the worst moment of their life, most of the time.”

“I’ve had some, a couple of really bad calls, one that’s affected me quite a bit. I’ll never forget it.”

It was the week before Christmas a few years back and there was a terrible snow storm and glare ice on the interstate.

Two kids heading home for the holidays were involved in a horrific crash. Stephanie remembers her patient like it was yesterday.

“I had to hold her face together and she was the same age as my daughter was at the time. They told them she had passed and I heard her mom scream on the phone, I never want to hear that again.”

It’s just one of many calls over the years that has forever changed Stephanie. “How do you let go of that stuff, you can’t let go of that stuff.”

Last year, she finally decided to get help. She was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Depression.

“It got to the point where, I don’t want to say it, but I didn’t see a whole lot of ways out of feeling the way I felt. It’s a hard thing to talk about cause we don’t want to admit we’ve got something wrong.”

Stephanie’s partner Mike Meixner, retired Air National Guard and former Madison firefighter, took it hard.

“One of the most difficult things for me was to actually see my partner going through the problems that are produced by PTSD. Frankly, I say a prayer for her because I worry about her.”

It’s not what we did, it’s what happened to us. We didn’t do anything, we’re tying to do our job. We can’t help that the nightmares keep coming.”

Stephanie is not alone in her struggles with PTSD. About one in 10 first responders worldwide is believed to be affected by it.

Onalaska Police Officer Jim Page is also part of that statistic.

Officer Page was diagnosed with PTSD in 2010 after shooting and injuring a suspect who was coming at him with a butcher knife.

He still deals with the memories of that one night and many others on a daily basis. “To see a dead baby and feel that dead baby in your arms, that is something that you don’t forget. A little piece of each of those calls sticks with you and it builds up.,” says Officer Page.

But when both of these first responders thought they had hit the low point in their lives, dealing with their new normal, a letter arrived in the mail.

“I felt like I got kicked in the gut, I felt like I didn’t matter,” said Stephanie.

“I was dumbstruck to find out that they could deny it,” said Officer Page.

Both Stephanie and Officer page filed for Worker’s Compensation through the state and both received similar responses from their employer’s insurance companies.

“The letter I got said that stress, and that was in quotations, is an expected part of the my job and they were denying any claims because of that,” said Officer Page.

“They think this is stuff to be expected. We’re still people, we don’t get training in EMT training to get your mind wrapped around seeing a kids face in pieces. You don’t get training to see people’s arms torn off,” said Stephanie.

Officer Page didn’t work full-time for seven months while he dealt with his PTSD and when he and his wife talked to the insurance company.

“Basically she said ‘had you let him stab you, you would’ve been covered’ and I couldn’t believe she that to me.”

Officer Page’s wife Angela says, “when I talked to her, she likened my husband’s job to that of a bank teller and in reality bank tellers are hired knowing at some point they may be held up. And then repeated to me what she had said to him which was the biggest insult is that ‘if your husband would’ve just let the other guy stab him, we could’ve covered that”

In Stephanie’s case, her therapist advised she take medical leave last year to deal with her PTSD and depression. She ended up being off of work for three weeks without pay and never received any worker’s compensation benefits either.

She had waited 3 years to get help. “I was terrified, I didn’t want to take off work, I can’t afford to take off work. You’re already stressed enough about all this other stuff and then you have to worry about finances on top of that and whether you’re going to get taken care of?”

Now these two first responders want to see changes so other cries for help don’t fall on deaf ears.

Officer Page says, “I know there are critics that say well, you chose to get into this profession, absolutely I did and I wouldn’t change that, but that doesn’t negate the fact that we need care that goes along with it.”

“I don’t know what it’s going to take for someone to listen. I don’t know how many people are going to have to pay the price.”

We did reach out to both insurance companies and while they don’t comment on specific cases, they say they follow state law when determining coverage.