A PTSD Retreat Helped a Veteran Firefighter Recover from the Worst Trauma of His Career

veteran firefighter ptsd retreat

‘It Was Like a Light Switch Turned Off’

Ryan was a firefighter for almost two decades when he received the call that triggered his PTSD. He served all over the globe while in the military years ago, but nothing prepared him for the day that a panicking father threw a baby into his arms. 

Ryan was working at a fire department in Washington when the man unexpectedly threw the newborn from feet away, right out front of the fire station. Ryan caught the child, saw that he was turning blue and immediately went to work to get him breathing again.

“There was something about that particular call,” he said. “If you're going into combat, you’re prepared for a gunfight. That's how it works. When you get called out, you know what you need to bring and what you need to do. But this was brand new—a baby was just thrown into my arms.”

Ryan saved the child, who made it to the hospital before dying hours later from congenital heart problems. But Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) set in fast and the veteran firefighter struggled to revive himself.  

“It was like a light switch turned off and I quickly went into this fog,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep, I didn't want to eat, I didn't want to go out or do anything. I remember people telling me jokes, and I would look at them and say, ‘that's really funny.’ But I literally couldn't laugh.”

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Finding Intensive Therapy at a PTSD Retreat

While the call was anything but normal, the symptoms Ryan was suffering are all too common, says Rachael Starr, founder of The 11th Hour Trauma Retreat, which offers intensive therapy to first responders and military personnel suffering from PTSD and other trauma. 

“Firefighters, police and others in public safety can have an acute reaction to trauma, even after years on the job,” she said. “Many describe it like flipping a switch or cutting a circuit. Very suddenly, you are no longer yourself. But people can recover—and even return to work in many cases—with an intensive approach to therapy.”

After just a few weeks, Ryan knew he needed help and he set out to get it. He read about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, or EMDR, a well-established technique that helps people better process and then transcend traumatic events. He heard it helped many in public safety.

Ryan saw one therapist, then another. But neither seemed to understand his situation, nor would they support his interest in trying EMDR to address his trauma. He found it frustrating. “I’m a pretty tough guy mentally and physically, and I needed to get stuff done,” he said. “I had to get back to work. I had to feel better.”

So when he met Rachael, he was ready to get to work and he liked what he heard. “I wanted to save lives again, but it's hard to save lives when you're having a hard time with your own life,” Ryan said. “I felt super comfortable with her literally from the first time we talked. She knows what firefighters do. She's actually been out on calls. It's so phenomenal and so absolutely helpful. It makes you comfortable trusting her to help you.” 

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‘I Truly Believe She Saved My Life’

At The 11th Hour Trauma Retreat, first responders like Ryan are taken care of from the time they arrive, allowing them to focus on the hard work of recovery. Food, accommodations and transportation are handled and every patient receives a custom therapy plan

For Ryan, that was intensive one-on-one therapy that included EMDR. He describes working for hours each day as they went through not only the traumatic incident in which the baby landed in his arms, but other lifelong traumas extending back to childhood.

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. Ryan describes spending periods of his week-long intensive therapy in tears.

“ It was probably one of the toughest things I've ever done in my life,” he said. “Some of the stuff she had me do didn’t always make sense, but you have to trust in her process. I bought it 100% and it healed me 100%, so you get out of it what you put into it. I was open and honest with her about everything, and we just started the healing process.” 

Today, Ryan is 41 and going on two dozen years as a firefighter. He’s back on the job and has even treated children without experiencing triggers. He and Raechel still talk a few times a year, though his therapy is now years done.

“I truly believe she saved my life,” he said. “She saved my marriage. She saved everything.” 

Where to find the best trauma recovery retreat?

Are you a first responder or an individual affected by trauma seeking specialized and compassionate care? Look no further than 11th Hour Trauma, our PTSD retreat.

The 11th Hour Trauma Retreat serves first responders and military personnel on a referral basis, working with doctors, police departments, fire departments and other 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 rstarrmsw@gmail.com. Let’s talk.

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