Loved ones remember Chris Rix, Peel paramedic who lost his battle with PTSD
OPSEU Local 277’s Facebook page includes a cellphone video, posted on June 9, 2017, of a paramedic’s radio. On the audio, the dispatcher’s voice cracks as he reads the last call honouring a fallen comrade. “This is a last call for Peel region paramedic …” The voice pauses for a few seconds. “... Chris Rix. Chris was an avid sports fan, a loyal family man …” There is another, longer pause, perhaps for the dispatcher to collect himself. “Chris was devoted to duty, honour and respect … his legacy and memory will never be forgotten.”
Five days before the message was posted on the Facebook page, Chris Rix took his own life in a Toronto hotel room, not long after celebrating his 40th birthday. His on-the-job partner, Caitlin Tavares, was among the group of friends at the birthday gathering in a Toronto bar. She was the last person to see him alive. “I walked him back to his hotel, I said goodnight to him, left him at the front door of the hotel, saw him walk in ... and then he hung himself,” Tavares said.
His widow, Michelle Badali, remembers a “funny” guy who was also “caring and considerate.” The pair met while working together at what was then the Air Canada Centre. Badali worked as an usher; Rix was an in-house paramedic tending to members of the audience. “We were both young. He had just graduated from Niagara College’s paramedicine diploma. I liked the job, that he was a paramedic — he looked good in uniform,” Badali reminisced.
She recalls that Rix was elated when he was hired by Peel Regional Paramedic Services in 2001. He had always been interested in the medical field, as his mother was a nurse. “He considered to go into nursing but he was intimidated by the schooling. He enjoyed being part of that first-responder community. He had considered becoming a police officer at one point, but ultimately paramedicine was his calling,” Badali added. Before long, the two were married in 2003.
Chris Rix and Michelle Badali
The stress of the job, though, was always a factor in the marriage. The couple’s relationship was a trusting one where they both agreed to share what was bothering them. Rix would not hesitate to tell his wife what was on his mind, and the two had a code requiring them to set aside the time to talk. But even then, Rix would often hold back. Badali believes he would keep some details from her to protect her. “He didn’t want, sort of, to scare me off or to have me worry about him when he’s at work.”
She noticed a change in her husband sometime after they welcomed their daughter into their lives in 2010. The couple’s energy and focus shifted towards caring for their child, which led to unintentionally drifting apart. They made attempts to reconnect when their daughter was around the age of 4. Still, Badali notes, there was a certain distance between them. “He wasn’t himself at that point … I started to wonder what the heck was going on. He seemed down a lot, angry, and was not excited to go to work.”
She did her research, sought help where she could find it, and was convinced her husband was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But Chris was having none of it. He resented being diagnosed by Badali and insisted he was fine.
His symptoms would go on to become physiological sometime in 2013. He found it difficult to swallow food and lost, Badali estimates, 50 pounds. He had to have surgery to correct the issue. After this ordeal, Rix finally heeded his wife’s warnings and acknowledged that he needed help.
He began seeing a specialist from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, which appeared to help him a little. During this period he received an affirmative diagnosis of PTSD. He liked going to his therapy sessions, but it was yielding few results. Rix was going to work, but he would spend long nights by himself in the basement watching reruns of the TV show M*A*S*H, about wartime medics, over and over again.
A May 2018 report by the Region of Peel studied the stressful working conditions of members of the Peel Regional Paramedic Services and their effect on mental health. The report, titled Qualitative Data Analysis: Risk Assessment Survey, names several factors that contribute to a deterioration of mental health in paramedics. An environment that makes paramedics feel undervalued, prioritizing operations over health, providing supports in a limited fashion just to keep up appearances, and toxic workplace behavior such as bullying and harassment were some of the contributing factors.
Badali said that Rix would often take days off, and his work would allow them. But when he asked for breaks during his shift, he would often get turned down. Emergency calls took priority over his need for rest.
Rix’s tragedy is one repeated far too often in his profession.
Tema Conter Memorial Trust, a mental health support group specializing in first responders, began tracking reported suicides among public safety personnel across Canada in 2014. They found that paramedics had the highest suicide rate among public safety professionals, at 47.76 per 10,000 people. The rate among all males Canada-wide is 17.3 per 10,000 people. The Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment determined, in one study, that 49.1 percent of all screened paramedics had been deemed positive for significant mental disorder symptoms. This included major depressive disorder (29.6 percent), anxiety disorder (33.9 percent) and PTSD (24.5 percent). The rates were found to be consistently higher than those for police, firefighters and 911 dispatchers, though lower than correctional officers.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada’s 2011 report estimated that one in five Canadians, approximately 6.7 million people, were dealing with mental illness. That is higher than those living with type 2 diabetes and heart disease combined. Mental health problems in Canada represent an economic burden of $42.3 billion in direct costs, equivalent to 2.8 percent of Canada’s GDP, in healthcare and social services provided to those suffering these issues. Estimated indirect costs through absenteeism and lost productivity are as high as $6.4 billion.
Having a front-row seat to the darker side of humanity clearly takes a toll on a paramedic. Caitlin Tavares recalled an incident they responded to together that had a particular effect on her partner, Rix. “We did a police shooting, I believe in 2013-14 in Mississauga. It was a police-involved shooting, so a couple of cops were shot. It was a terrifying call; it was probably the most highly intense call I’ve gotten in my life,” Tavares said.
She had never seen so many cops, including heavily armed TRU tactical police, on the scene. Tavares has trouble remembering the exact date and some of the smaller details of that call. But she noticed that Rix fixated on the call and was able to remember every detail about it. “It didn’t sit well with him.”
Eventually, the strain of his illness took a toll on his marriage, and he and Badali separated. He started living with his parents. The whole time, Badali kept warning his family that something was wrong and he wasn’t well.
On June 4, 2017, Chris Rix committed suicide. Badali and Taveres both learned the news from his cousin, leaving them emotionally shattered. “It was like it was not happening. It just seemed like it wasn’t real,” Tavares said.
“I remember being really angry and throwing a glass bottle across the room. I was in shock. I was like, ‘What do I tell my daughter?”’ Badali said.
Todd Doherty, the Conservative MP for Cariboo–Prince George, invoked Rix’s name during a meeting of the standing Senate Committee on National Defence, held on the one-year anniversary of Rix’s death. He was there for the debate on his Bill C-211, an act requiring then Veterans Affairs minister Seamus O’Regan, Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale, Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan, and provincial and territorial governments to convene a conference on PTSD. The goal was to form a national framework on dealing with PTSD through tracking incidence rates, establishing guidelines for diagnosis, sharing best practices nationally, and creating standardized education materials.
The last conference on the issue was held in April. “One of the things that struck me was that there really didn’t seem to be a coordinated, from one end of our country to another, framework or program that assisted provinces and assisted industries to try and combat this,” Doherty told The Pointer. “Somebody told me, ‘If you got the opportunity to, or are fortunate enough to be elected, don’t waste this opportunity. Make the most of it.”
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