Paramedic on the Hill
Caribou-Prince George MP Todd Doherty (left), Barrie-Innisfil MP John Brassard and Cumberland-Colchester MP Bill Casey (right) with Simcoe County paramedic Natalie Harris during her testimonial to the Standing Committee in support of Bill C-211 to offer assistance to soldiers and first responders suffering from PTSD. PHOTO: SUBMITTED
At the end of her speech in Parliament, Natalie Harris handed over the uniform that once gave her so much pride to wear, but now gives her too much pain to bear.
The Barrie woman was one of three speakers who gave witness to the standing committee at the House of Commons on Bill-C211 to build a better federal framework for first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on Tuesday.
After suffering through years with PTSD, paramedic Harris tried to take her own life in October 2014.
The PTSD switch might have been flipped on when she attended a call at the Travelodge Hotel to find two dead and nearly-decapitated young women in May 2012. But it also seemed to reawaken the ghosts all of the deaths she’d had to deal with in her 10 years on the road as a Simcoe County paramedic.
“You never think you’ll be the person who will get sick and go through all that,” Harris said from her Barrie home on Thursday after returning from Ottawa.
After recovering from her suicide attempt, starting her own PTSD workshops and giving talks to other first responders, Harris decided to give up one of the most painful memories of her former days on the road.
“First responders and the military cling so tightly to their uniform, to their careers, a lot of us don’t know who we are any more,” Harris said. “We have no education on the extent of what trauma will do to our lives and once we learn this might not be our career forever, we have to learn to deal with that and the PTSD.”
Harris said the decision to hand in her uniform in Ottawa offered her a sense of purpose.
“So it’s easier for me not to go through it all again every time I looked at my uniform,” she said. “It was a big opportunity for me to decide where and when I finally get to hang up my uniform. Because up until then, PTSD took away my choice.”
As one of three speakers on PTSD in Ottawa, with Anne-Marie Ugnat, director at the centre for Surveillance and Applied Research and Jitender Sareen, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Manitoba, Harris spoke of passion for the bill before the committee.
Bill C-211 was created to establish a national template to ensure Canada’s military, first responders, paramedics, police, veterans, RCMP and correctional officers get timely access to the resources they need to deal with PTSD.
Initially brought to Parliament by Caribou-Prince George MP Todd Doherty, his submission on the bill’s behalf stated, “The bill sends a message to our silent sentinels that this is not a battle they have to fight by themselves… The reality is that experiencing human tragedy affects all of us differently. These incidents and experiences cannot be erased from our memory. Most of us can never imagine what our warriors go through on a daily basis, the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the images. It affects their lives and the lives of friends and families of those who put themselves in harm's way.”
Barrie-Innisfil MP John Brassard said he co-sponsored Bill C-211 with Doherty in parliament.
“It went tremendously well,” Brassard said of Harris’ testimony. “Nobody’s been a stronger advocate for first responders than Natalie. It was compelling testimony.
“She told her story and it brought committee members to tears.”
Brassard said Doherty respected her offer of her uniform and will present it to the House of Commons when the bill passes.
Of Bill C-211 itself, Brassard said as a former firefighter, he has personally witnessed the tragic effects of post-traumatic stress on first responders.
“It’s not a partisan issue, it’s a human issue,” he said.
On Tuesday, Brassard and Cumberland-Colchester MP Bill Casey introduced Harris to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. She handed him a copy of her book, Save-My-Life School that was released in January through local publisher Wintertickle Press, and is now in its second printing, as well as being translated into French.
The book covers the grisly blog posts Harris wrote while healing from the traumatic events following the gruesome discovery of a deadly satanic suicide pact in 2012.
Harris was one of the first responders to enter the blood-soaked room where Barrie’s Mark Dobson had killed his girlfriend, Mary Hepburn and their friend Helen Dorrington, 52, of Cold Lake, Alta.
Dorrington and Hepburn were found with their heads nearly decapitated in the hotel room. Dobson was discovered naked and covered in blood. He had been unable to kill himself – as was the goal of the threesome – who had planned their suicide pact after reading a satanic website.
In 2015, Dobson was sentenced to two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to two life terms in prison
In addition to her book, Harris travels the province speaking to first responders about her struggle with post-traumatic stress, and offers twice monthly Wings of Change workshops in Barrie to help others heal.