It took almost a decade for 20-year veteran Olympia EMT Lance Slosson to realize he was suffering from job-related post-traumatic stress disorder. “I love my job,” he said. “But I wasn’t right. I needed help.”
But when Slosson applied for a job-related claim to get therapy his doctors recommended, he discovered when it comes to paying for PTSD treatment, some first responders are getting hard resistance from the cities and counties they’re paid to protect.
Few jobs require the daily deep dive into the trauma of life, death and tragedy. But these are issues first responders have to face. Many never reveal or repeat stories about their most traumatic experiences, according to Slosson, who was on duty nine years ago when a 911 call reported a serious SUV crash— the driver ejected 40 feet — on the road where Slosson’s family lived.
“Right away it hit me,” Slosson said. “I got nervous.”
Dispatchers described a truck owned by Slosson’s older brother Doug Slosson. A man who struck a strong impression of an indestructible Marvel superhero to the people who knew him.
“As soon as we pulled up, I could see his SUV upside down. He’d been ejected 15-20 feet,” he said.
It was Lance Slosson’s job to do everything possible to get his big brother breathing again. “At some point, I remember just saying to the EMTs there, ‘Hey guys, this is my brother,’ and we’re going to do this. It’s my job to intubate him, and I did it.”
But Slosson wasn’t getting a response from his brother.
“I just kept thinking, ‘Get up!’ He was the strongest guy ever. And if he was in a condition where people were having to do compressions on him, it was significant, and there was no coming back from it,” he said.
When a lifelong friend and fellow firefighter showed up on the scene and took over for Slosson, he started numbly walking to his mother’s house down the road.
Informing people about the death of family is part of Slosson’s everyday job, but nothing prepared him for this. “I would have to go tell my mom that my brother had died,” he said. “I knew that I was about to wreck everything. If I could do it over, I’d have someone else do that. Because I felt a little guilty, telling my mom he died.”
It took Slosson years after that extreme traumatic event to recognize it ignited a long, painful stretch of post-traumatic stress, made worse by every fatal car crash he worked on.
Eventually, a doctor diagnosed him with PTSD and prescribed treatment.
Washington state’s Department of Labor and Industries approved his PTSD claim for treatment twice, as did an independent medical evaluator. But the city of Olympia, like a lot of cities, is self-insured. Concerned about the potential cost of long-term treatment, the city manager pushed back on the claim, and two psychologists dropped Slosson as a patient because of his inability to pay for treatment. Slosson said the city didn’t stop there. “They fight dirty,” he said.
“The city paid lawyers to go into my social media account and take pictures showing me hiking in the mountains, kayaking in the rivers, and they used it against me in the appeals court,” he said.
In documents, the city of Olympia acknowledged Slosson suffered depression over the death of his brother, but lawyers claimed it was not “causally related” to his job as a paramedic.
“The city was fighting me tooth and nail just to go get help,” he said.
Slosson started to hear from other firefighters and police officers and found out his struggle to convince the city his PTSD case was an on-the-job injury was not unique.
“This problem (of PTSD) is so big that have personally known three firefighters that have committed suicide,” said Gabe DeBay, a veteran Shoreline EMT, who said firefighters and EMTs are statistically more likely to die of self-inflicted injuries than in the line of duty. “It’s very challenging — some of the things we see on a regular basis,” he said.
DeBay cited a state law passed three years ago that gave police, firefighters and EMTs the right to claim PTSD treatment as a “presumed occupational disease.” The law also puts the burden of proof on the first responders’ employer to prove the PTSD is not job-related. And if the employer loses an appeal in court, it will be required to pay the first responders’ legal fees.
“If I had struggled to get the help I needed, if I had roadblocks placed in front of me, I don’t know what I would have done,” DeBay said.
The city of Olympia told KIRO 7 News that Slosson’s case is a private personnel issue. But after he hired a lawyer and fought the city for months, the city told Slosson it will drop its appeal and pay for his treatment for PTSD.
Slosson said the first responders we all rely upon in life and death situations may also be in a quiet struggle to get treatment for their own trauma. To make sure those first responders are healthy and have that treatment funded — like an on-the-job physical injury — is what he’s now fighting for.
“There are a lot of people who need help who are not getting help,” he said. “This is so the next guy doesn’t have to go through as many hurdles and roadblocks to get the help they need.”
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