After 15 years as a CFA volunteer, which started with witnessing his first fatal car accident scene at 16, Peter Green is speaking out about his battle with post traumatic stress disorder. KATRINA LOVELL reports.
Peter Green was just 16 when, as a volunteer firefighter, he was sent to his first fatal car accident.
He was a skinny kid back then - the perfect size for crawling into tight spaces at the accident scene.
The horrific things he saw and had to do still haunt him.
After 15 years of seeing things "no human needs to see" and watching people take their last breath, Peter reached his tipping point.
That was three-and-a-half years ago when he was responding to yet another car accident, this time one man was killed and another critically injured in a crash involving a truck and car just outside of Hamilton.
The truck driver was nowhere to be found and Peter helped look for him - he was found alive 36 hours later kilometres away.
It didn't hit straight away, but over the next three weeks things started to fall apart for Peter and was the start of a "journey" that affected him not just mentally but physically.
His wife, Aimee, will tell you he's been "to hell and back". It got so bad he ended up leaving hospital on a four-wheel walker.
The wristbands Peter wears read 'Let me know' and 'It ain't weak to speak' - and that is exactly what he is doing.
He has been giving presentations about what he's been through - whether it is to emergency services personnel, medical staff or students.
"It doesn't matter whether you're a volunteer, whether you're a career firefighter, the police, ambulance, SES. At the end of the day we all put the uniform on and we all see the same thing," he said.
Peter said he had made a promise to himself that he wouldn't back down from trying to explain to others what he'd been through in the hope that it saved even just one person from going through what he had.
But it's not easy. His talks are honest and "pull no punches", he said, and there's very little that is off limits.
"There's no way to sugar coat mental health. It's raw. It goes right back to the primitive fight or flight emotions that we have."
My exposure to pretty horrific stuff was at a young age... I have post traumatic stress but I also have psychogenic or conversion disorder - so basically the right-hand side of my body doesn't do what it's told all the time.Peter Green
But he doesn't just talk about his battle with post traumatic stress disorder, he offers advice and tools on how to identify it in others, how to engage them and what to do to help. Peter grew up around the CFA after his dad signed up after the devastating Ash Wednesday fires of 1983.
"Every kid goes through that thing of wanting to be on a big red truck with flashing sirens," he said. "I got to live it out. They don't tell you about the icky bits that come with it."
Back in the 1990s when he joined, the CFA was only just starting to move into the mental health space, but Peter said it was "still deemed to be a man's world".
"At a lot of places at the time, your first fatal car accident was seen as a coming of age."
His first brigade in outer Melbourne did try to shield younger volunteers. But at Peter's first fatal car crash, he was one of only three on the truck and that meant there was no shielding him from the horror.
"I've always been a long streak of the proverbial. There was unfortunately a task that needed someone skinny that could fit into a certain space and I just happened to be standing in the wrong place at the right time," he said.
"No one did anything wrong, the job had to be done. Unfortunately that one still haunts me to this day, because it was a pretty feral accident."
Half of the call-outs Peter responded to as a teenage CFA volunteer were car accidents. "My exposure to pretty horrific stuff was at a young age," he said.
"There are some rural brigades way out in the sticks that the only way they're going to get a truck on the road is if they've got three or four young kids on them because rural communities are getting smaller.
"They're usually the ones that cop those nasty high-speed crashes in the middle of nowhere, and they get there a long time before the ambulance and SES."
After years in Melbourne, Peter eventually moved to Warrnambool, got married, had kids and rejoined the CFA in Hamilton in 2010. "Hamilton when I first joined we hardly did any car accidents and then it just slowly snowballed," he said.
Peter had worked in finance for 15 years and was in the midst of going through the CFA recruitment process to become a professional firefighter when he broke down.
"It's cumulative. The last one was the one that broke me. I sort of slowly started sinking after that pretty quickly.
"I have post traumatic stress but I also have psychogenic or conversion disorder - so basically the right-hand side of my body doesn't do what it's told all the time.
"At its worst, which was about six weeks after that accident, I looked like I was having an epileptic fit."
Thankfully he was lying in a hospital bed at the time and talking to doctors and nurses as it all happened.
Thinking it was a neurological issue, they did MRI scans and found lesions on his brain. "They said: 'if you were someone 80 years of age we wouldn't have any concerns about this, being that you're 37, we have concerns'."
But when a neurologist finally looked at it, and compared it to an MRI he'd had done years earlier, they found no new lesions.
Peter had two short stints in Hamilton hospital where he experienced stroke-like symptoms. "When I left hospital the second time I walked out on a four-wheel-walker, which I despised," he said. "On a good day you can't notice, but on a bad day it's still pretty debilitating.
"Mentally I can't deal with it so it shows out in a physical form. All my body parts that are seriously affected are the same ones I've dealt with at horrific accidents.
"I lost sensation. I still have days when I feel like half my face has dropped."
Peter was eventually able to ditch the walker and for 14 months had to use a walking stick. Last year he got himself fit enough to do the firefighter stair climb up the Metropol in full CFA gear.
But he said his firefighting days were done. He still volunteers with the CFA but doesn't go out on jobs. Peter said he had essentially been medically retired. "I've been deemed to be totally and permanently disabled which at 39 is a pretty daunting thought."
Peter said he got really lucky when he became unwell. "I've got a GP that got it. He didn't just try and jam pills down my throat," he said. "Look, I'm on a fair whack of medication now, don't get me wrong, but he got it and got me assessed."
For two-and-a-half years, Peter travelled to the Austin Repatriation Hospital in Heidelberg every two weeks for treatment. "All they deal with there are defence service and emergency service personnel, and they are awesome," he said.
"I'd heard horror stories of guys going to speak to psychologists and the first thing they were told was 'you knew what you were signing up for'.
"It's still an interesting world within the medical fraternity trying to deal with mental health stuff. I think it's because it's an intangible thing."
How one person's PTSD shows itself is different to the next person, he said, and it affects those around you. The father of two said his seven-year-old only remembered him being sick.
Peter has also had good support from the CFA . He's often chatted with other CFA officers about why, after see the same thing at that accident scene, it broke him and not them.
He said that while he didn't think post traumatic stress could be prevented, you could reduce the severity of it.
Emergency services have great processes of debriefing operationally, he said, but when it comes to what he calls an operational emotional debrief "we're still very naive".
"We use car accidents as the centrepiece to talk about this because we see some pretty horrific things but I can tell you from experience...house fires are a world of their own," he said.
"The human component is the hardest part to deal with every emergency service, every human reacts differently to the same situation."
He recalled the time he arrived at a burning home at 6am with the owner outside screaming "my girls". "So I've gone into full rescue mode. I have kids. Your blood just runs ice cold. We just went into overdrive to do it.
"When you're on a search and rescue you push the bounds of what's safe because that's your job," he said. "We thought we were looking for two young girls. It was quite a daunting experience."
It turned out "the girls" were the owner's dogs. They perished in the blaze. "That's one of those things that haunt me as well. You think what if...," he said.
"I've had two massive breakdowns to the point of being pretty close to not being here anymore. I don't pull punches and I talk about that openly. They're really scary when you look back on it." But he finds it therapeutic to talk about it. "This isn't part of the whole quick fix society that we have these days."
- To contact Peter for speaking engagements email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- If you or someone you know needs help call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
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