First responders falling through the cracks: EMTs battle PTSD, depression on the job

First responders often work around the clock, spending time away from family, battling stress and trauma on their own. During the pandemic, every patient must be treated as if they have COVID-19.
7:31 | 05/04/21

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Transcript for First responders falling through the cracks: EMTs battle PTSD, depression on the job
They say as paramedics, your most important time is your downtime. What do you do when you're not at work? Because that keeps us healthy. Reporter: For Nella la Fuente, these everyday moments with her family are not only precious, but necessary. Eat your food. If we have a healthy life outside of work, then we can maintain a healthy life at work. District 5, proceed. Reporter: She has been working as an emt for almost 20 years. Now a field commander in the austin-travis county medical services unit. On the front lines, responding to covid calls, and behind the scenes volunteering as a team leader in the department's peer support group. For medics like Neta, the group is a vital way to process the situations they encounter so often on the job. Its goal? Destigmatizing the mental health crises they so often face. As a leader, my job is not only to serve the patients, but now my responsibility is to serve my paramedics, my medics. I just focus on one task at a time. When it's 7:30 in the morning and you're rushing out the door saying bye to your husband and your kiddo, what do you think about most in those moments when you're to be start your day? I think about making sure that my day is as safe as possible so that I can come back. Reporter: Her fears are more than valid. In Austin, more than 50,000 covid-19 cases have been reported. That's where you can infect we used to have these really elaborate zip-up suits, and when you take those off, that's higher risk than the gown. Reporter: You had multiple layers of gloves and face. We wear the face shield in case we're going to do aerosolizing treatments. Since this patient was a covid positive and there is a possibility we have to give her a neb or assist her in ventilation, she is covid positive and has an extensive history, she is stable right now. Reporter: So her and the other medics' work is twofold. Caring for others and make sure they care for themselves. It's hard as a medic to kind of look at yourself and say hey, I need help. We kind of go to the extreme and then we realize that our limb is broken and we need to get help too. Reporter: Ems is one of the most fulfilling jobs that you can absolutely do. And full transparency, it's a profession that really does kind of tear at you. All right, on three. Reporter: Daniel Owens and his partner Andre are also austin-travis county emts. They've been running emergency services before the pandemic began, and together they have seen it all. We were dealing with covid in March, picking up extra shifts. I have an amazing wife named Jessica, and I also have two boy, ages 6 and 4 who are an absolute joy to be around. Reporter: Last March, Daniel made the difficult decision to live away from his family in order to keep them safe. When Jessica and the kids left and we decided we'd just ride out, you know, two or three weeks until things kind of got under control. Things never got under control. This is the boys' room. I am really missing them tonight. If you want to feel like a million bucks after you have just a horrible, cruddy shift, come home to two boys who think that you're just the man who hung the moon or just think you're an absolute hero. Reporter: Underneath the sheer exhaustion of the job and all the stress that goes with it, there lies something rarely discussed, trauma. We can't call 911 because we are nine 911. There is no backup. It's really hard running these calls. We're hoping for two or three hours to get some sleep, and it just doesn't happen. We have created this false machismo. If you start having cumulative stress, it's because you're weak. For most medics in the profession, it's going to come at a great cost. Reporter: In 2015, two of his medics died by suicide in response, the department launched the peer support program, one of several initiatives focusing on mental health and wellness. Dr. Tanya Glenn specializes in treating severe stress and she has worked with first responders in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, and hurricane Katrina. She launched the paramedic peer support program in Austin and several other states in order the break the stigma associated with trauma. You have to break the silence around it. First responders will not go to therapy if there is a paper trail, if there is a diagnosis attached to their name. So I proposed this program to put my practice on a separate contract with a specialty of dealing with first responder issues, and that I would submit an invoice once a month with no names on the invoice. Reporter: People want to stay anonymous because is that fear that somebody is going to hold your struggles against you in a professional setting. What a peer support team does, it creates this bubble of trust because it's someone who works in the same profession as you. It's someone who is not going to go on an administrative tear and try to take away your job. Reporter: At a point in Neta's career, she experienced symptoms of PTSD. She says she was able to better able to cope with the compounded stress and trauma after talking to Dr. Glenn. Have you ever experienced PTSD from a call? When my son was born, something turned on inside of me where I was constantly anxious and looking for things that may happen. I've been on lots of calls where the baby died because the parent slept while they were holding their baby. And then whoever wanted to hold my baby, I would watch them. I couldn't get my eyes off them because I was afraid they'll fall asleep, even though it was broad daylight. Reporter: So how did you cope? I started asking my family and my peers like is this normal? Because I'm a first-time mom. Ng it to my attention. They said out of the thousand times that somebody does something, you see that one time where it went wrong. Post traumaic stress disorder is when an individual is exposed to a stress trauma so extreme, it's beyond their human coping capacity. Usually when we think of PTSD, we think of soldiers. Right. Reporter: But anyone can suffer from PTSD, right? Yes, sir. Reporter: Neta has an additional layer of stress. She is one of the very few women leading the team in a field traditionally dominated by men. Statistically, being a woman and being a woman of color, I'm outnumbered. As a woman, you know, your voice has to be a little stronger, and you have to have a little bit more of a presence to get that attention. And it's not just from our department. It's society in general. An elderly patient that's wife is covid positive. I did get great news. I'm pregnant. Where is the baby's heart beat? Right there. Oh, yeah. We just finished the ultrasound. Everything looks great. I'm so excited. Reporter: For Neta and her fellow front line heroes, success is not just measured by how many livs they save, but how they maintain their own.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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