UVA Researchers Partner with EMS Council to Reduce 'Stress Injuries'

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Helmet used by the Charlottesville Fire Department Helmet used by the Charlottesville Fire Department
Charlottesville Fire Department Chief Andrew Baxter Charlottesville Fire Department Chief Andrew Baxter
Dr. Richard Westphal Dr. Richard Westphal
Dr. Forest Calland Dr. Forest Calland
Tom Joyce Tom Joyce

First responders in central Virginia are set to get some new training on how to better help themselves.

The Thomas Jefferson EMS Council, which serves seven counties across the region, is partnering with the University of Virginia for a new program that treats what researchers call “stress injuries."

When emergencies hit, the men and women who respond wade into the middle of life's most terrifying moments.

"We're the ones that run into the burning building when everyone else is running out," said Charlottesville Fire Department Chief Andrew Baxter.

Whether they are firefighters, paramedics or police officers, they're the first ones at the car accidents or the crime scenes or listening to 911 calls. A career experiencing what they have to handle can take a toll on the mind and body.

"Pre-hospital care providers are at risk for stress injury," said Dr. Forest Calland, a trauma surgeon. An estimated 15 percent of emergency responders suffer from complications, some as severe as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"We all have good days and bad days," Baxter said.

Researchers at UVA are working with the Thomas Jefferson EMS Council to make sure those who care for us are healthy themselves.

"It's important for us as a community when we ask people to go into harm's way on our behalf, that we as a community support those individuals and their families," said UVA School of Nursing Professor Dr. Richard Westphal.

Westphal studied how the military treats soldiers who suffer from psychological illnesses like PTSD.

“The good news is the culture of responders is not that different from the military, fire, police, EMS," he said.

Researchers are helping to get jurisdictions on board with their program. Part of it is conducting research, and the other part is education on how to talk about emergency responders are feeling.

"Let's just measure and see the extent to which people who provide care as a part of their daily work are having psychic distress," Dr. Calland said.

"The opportunity to get this high quality of a program is something I think the council felt we shouldn't miss and we should bring out to the providers," said Tom Joyce with Thomas Jefferson EMS Council.

The program represents an important step for Chief Baxter’s department, as well as others across the region.

"We're all challenged by various stresses in our lives every day, but it's absolutely critical that we have a skill set and a language that we can use to communicate with each other to talk about the problem instead of making it personal," said the fire chief.

The Thomas Jefferson EMS Council hopes all seven counties it serves will take part in this new peer-to-peer outreach program. Some of the protocols are in the work right now and the goal is to roll it out later this year.

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