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Stress, plus: Lingering pandemic amps up mental, physical toll for Upstate first responders

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chris ludbrook

Chris Ludbrook poses for a photo in his Belton home. Conor Hughes/Staff

It was about 2 a.m. when Chris Ludbrook's phone lit up.

The man on the line was one of his former students at the Upstate EMS Council, where Ludbrook works as an instructor. They had exchanged calls and texts for weeks as Lubrook's former student grappled with a rising tide of panic attacks, anxiety and depression. That morning, he sounded distressed. So Ludbrook jumped into his truck and drove to his house to talk, hours before sunrise.

On top of the often grueling day-to-day work of a first responder, he had recently experienced the death of a loved one and was facing challenges in his personal life. Amplifying it all was the continued spread of the coronavirus, which he had to deal with on an almost daily basis.

Ludbrook said his former student isn't alone in feeling the pressure of the continuing pandemic.

"It's been corona, corona, corona on top of the normal job, like now you've got a pediatric patient who's drowned in a pool or now you've got somebody who was killed in a car accident," Ludbrook said. "So it's just all this additional stress."

Firefighters, police and other first responders are already at more risk of post traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues than the general population because of the nature of their work, multiple studies have found. Advocates say the ever-changing nature of the coronavirus pandemic, and first responders regular contact with infected patients, has only heightened those problems.

Ludbrook, who left the fire service in 2018 as he struggled with PTSD, said former colleagues and students often reach out to him to discuss what they're going through. He said many fear discussing their struggles with their colleagues or bosses for fear of being judged. So they often turn to Ludbrook, who is vocal about his PTSD and runs a Facebook page advocating for first responders who struggle with mental health.

He said the calls have been coming more often in recent months.

"I would definitely say I've been seeing more people that are have some stress, anxiety, who are just feeling overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that's going on," he said. "We've got people that we work with that are getting sick, family members that are getting sick, dealing with clients that are sick."

Greenville Fire Chief Stephen Kovalcik said the pandemic has created stress for firefighters on multiple levels.

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Many, particularly those who live with older parents or people with preexisting conditions, fear bringing the virus home to their loved ones. At the onset of the pandemic, Greenville firefighters were responding to about eight potential coronavirus calls a day, Kovalcik said. That number has dropped but they are still going out to an average of four calls a day where someone at the scene might have the virus.

So far, 12 Greenville Fire Department employees have tested positive for the virus and 20 have had to be isolated. At one point, an entire crew had to quarantine at one time.

"Even prior to COVID, suicide among first responders is at an all time high and PTSD is running rampant through fire and EMS," Kovalcik said. "This hasn't helped, that's for sure."

Law enforcement is facing similar challenges, interim Greenville Police Chief Howie Thompson said. As Upstate police deal with the emotional and mental toll of the job, including a Tuesday wreck in which a Greenville County deputy was killed and two others were injured, the pandemic has only added to the stress.

Both the fire department and the police department offer resources for employees to deal with the pressures of the job. Kovalcik said his organization called in the SC First Responder Assistance Team to meet with every department employee over three days to address the additional stress. The counseling included members of SCFAST's peer support team and a psychologist. At the police department, officers have access to peer support and counseling. The SC Law Enforcement Assistance Program, a counterpart to SCFAST, is an integral part of those resources.

But both SCLEAP and SCFAST have experienced a significant drop in financial support from the state this year. The $500,000 included in the state budget every year for the two programs since 2016 was not there in 2020 since the state has yet to pass a new budget, putting a strain on their resources.

SCFAST has been forced to postpone some training and peer support events indefinitely to keep essential services in place. 

Kovalcik said he's disappointed the money has been cut.

"I think it's irresponsible," he said. 

Follow Conor Hughes on Twitter at @ConorJHughes.

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