Intensive therapy in a retreat setting helped heal 20 years of job-related trauma
Laura knew something was wrong when her unit chief, a woman she had known and respected for years, summoned her for a conversation at headquarters. As a single parent, a cancer survivor and a dispatcher for a major California fire department for more than two decades, Laura said she was in a dark place. The summons told her it was starting to show.
“I was on the precipice of jumping off a cliff, figuratively and literally,” she said. “My work life was blowing up. My parental life was blowing up. I was just absolutely failing at both things. I was at that point where suicide would have been just perfect.”
But the chief’s opening line resonated: “where's the smiling Laura?” Just entering her 40s, Laura herself had asked that very question and she agreed to get help from the department’s Employee Assistance Program. “I was at an absolute breaking point,” she said.
Laura was connected with The 11th Hour Trauma Retreat, which offers intensive therapy to first responders and military personnel suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other trauma. Rather than a referral to a local doctor or counselor, Laura was quickly flown to a hotel PTSD retreat in Colorado, where she would spend a full week working one-on-one with a licensed therapist and undergoing treatment, all of it paid for by the department. It’s a therapeutic approach that has helped scores in public safety recover from job-related trauma, return to their profession and lead healthier lives.
Laura agrees completely. She attended The 11th Hour PTSD retreat in 2020, and today Laura has a new job as a police dispatcher, a new relationship with her son and new outlook. As she put it, “it gave me my life back.”
Starr says Laura’s story is important because it illustrates a common problem. While much of the national conversation about job-related trauma is rightly focused on field personnel like police and firefighters, support personnel like dispatchers are often left out. Yet people in those roles are placed in traumatic circumstances regularly.
“Dispatchers are part of almost every single police and fire call,” Starr said. “They are not in the cars or trucks, but they ride along in every way that matters. They experience the fear and anxiety—they are traumatized. Making sure they have access to treatment and the right therapeutic approach is absolutely critical, and that’s something we focus on here at The 11th Hour.”
Equally important is that job-related trauma often extends far beyond work. First responders have childhood issues. They have families and mortgages. They are parents and spouses. They experience traumatic events outside the workplace, like Laura’s breast cancer diagnosis, now 10 years in remission but still a “dark cloud,” as she describes it.
“I think that's very common for people who work in public safety,” Laura said. “Work life and home life kind of go hand-in-hand. If things aren't going well in one place, they’re not going to go very well in the other.”
Laura grew up in difficult circumstances. Her mother left her in the care of a neighborhood family while she was still in school. She did not meet her father until she was 25. Team sports were a comfort in high school, where she played basketball, softball and volleyball. After graduation, she found a new team to join when she enrolled at the fire academy.
“This was my jam,” she said. “I liked the camaraderie and the family aspect that you build with the people you work with. I mean, you're living in a house with them. During your shifts, it's your home and your home life.”
Laura worked in the field as a firefighter/EMT for several years, and when a job opened for a dispatcher, she took it. It was important work, providing essential help to people in extreme need. She made good friends in the department and considered them an extension of her family. It was a profession that she loved.
But two decades later, it began to feel different. The 12-hour shifts were filled with traumatic events. Laura can still recall the wails of the family when a two-year-old drowned in a swimming pool. California’s wildfire season added to the stress and long hours each year. The Dixie Fire in 2021 raged from July to October, consuming entire towns as it destroyed almost 1 million acres. It all has a unique impact on those who work in dispatch.
“When you're in the field, you see the devastation,” Laura said. “In dispatch, you're getting just the tidbits and your brain is filling in the holes for you. And when your brain does it, it tends to draw the worst of the worst.”
As she put it, “I was really good at compartmentalizing it—until I wasn't.”
The workplace changed, too. During two decades in the department, Laura saw dozens of colleagues come and go, from shift partners to command staff. A younger generation arrived with different ideas about public service, changing the workplace culture. Laura’s sense of belonging began to erode.
“This was kind of like my family and my home away from home,” she said. “And now, these were just people that I worked with. It just wasn’t what it used to be.”
At The 11th Hour Trauma Retreat, Laura’s needs were taken care of from the time she arrived, allowing her to focus on the hard work of recovery. They arranged the hotel stay, picked her up at the airport and even ensured she had her favorite snacks.
“All you need to do is be present,” Laura said. “The hotel is taken care of. Your food is taken care of. They tell you, ‘just come here and be present and we'll help get you through this—but you have to be willing to do the work.’”
Every patient receives a custom therapy plan. For Laura, that was intensive one-on-one therapy with Tessa, a licensed therapist who also survived a life-threatening illness. “They paired us together perfectly,” Laura said. The two listed out what 11th Hour calls “the wall,” meaning the memories and triggers that keep Laura in an unhappy place, and talked about each extensively. Laura also received Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, or EMDR, a well-established technique that helps people better process and then transcend traumatic events.
“I knew that I was extremely broken, I just didn't realize the extent of it,” Laura said. “Back in the day, when I started in public service, you didn’t show emotion because that was a sign of weakness. Now, I understand that it’s okay to have feelings after I deal with a call and it's okay to take the time to process them. It essentially gave me permission to take care of myself.”
Now 44, Laura still works in dispatch, but she moved to a police department in a much smaller jurisdiction. Her department is responsible for about 15,000 people, rather than the millions served at the fire department. Traumatic incidents are still a part of her job, but she has strategies to manage the stress. She has also worked to find a better work-life balance.
“The retreat laid the foundation for me to be able to say that I deserve to be happy. I deserve to be happy at work. I deserve to be happy at home,” she said. “It gave me the tools to be able to take my life back and to live life daily.”
The 11th Hour Trauma Retreat serves first responders and military personnel on a referral basis, working with doctors, police departments, fire departments and other i public agencies to provide people with the care they need. To learn more about our program, or to refer a patient, call (772) 837-5988 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s talk.