Three paramedics from Ottawa will run the Québec Mega Trail in support of first responders on August 14. Éric Roy, Valérie Jacques, and Francis Paré are raising $2,500 in support of the Ottawa First Responders Foundation. “First Responders do an incredible job, but we are often forgotten. The “helpers” also need help sometimes, so this event is a way for me to do my part and try to help my colleagues,” shared Roy.  “Last year, I was able to fundraise almost $1,500 for Multiple Sclerosis. This year, I want to put my efforts into helping the people I work with. That’s why we chose the Ottawa First Responders Foundation, which is directly focused on providing support for us.” 

Valérie Jacques has been a trail runner for many years and enjoys the ways she and Roy have complementary styles, science, and spirit, they help sharpen each other. Paré enjoys training with them both, joking that they represent his left and right brain. 

On August 14, Paré and Jacques will run 25 km of the annual QC Mega Trail with Roy completing a super-ultra 110 km marathon. “Trail running is good physical exercise! It is also great stress management, there is something meditative about running in the woods,” Francis shares, “Trail running is going to stick for me even after things open up again. We all need healthy coping for stress, like meditation or exercise, and it helps if we talk about it”. Roy was sharing tips and encouragement with colleagues who recently started running. Roy shares, “I don’t particularly like to run. It’s painful and I rarely feel like going. But I still do it because it keeps me aligned in life. When I run, I feel connected with nature and with myself. I actually get my best ideas when I’m out alone on a trail. Running purifies my mind.”

All three set a goal to run the QC Mega Trail and trained through the long winter. As a long-time runner, Roy encouraged Paré into registering. “When Éric registered for 110 km 8 months ago, I figured I could do 25 km, 110 km is a whole other level! I registered a few days later and started training doing 10 km, 25 km, and 30 km trail runs on the National Capital Commission (NCC) trails and sometimes in Gatineau Park to train for elevation changes.” The QC Mega Trail changes elevation around Mont-Sainte-Anne and the 110km course covers Sentier des Caps trail, the Mestachibo Trail, and Jean-Larose Falls. Roy says,“I function on a higher level when I put a challenge in front of me. It doesn’t have to be anything life-changing. But I find that having a “vision”, or a mental image of what we want for our future, acts as a target. Something to focus on.” Jacques lives near Gatineau and was able to train there often during lockdowns. 

Jacques returned to paramedic work once COVID-19 hit with the health worker shortages. She was on a year-long sabbatical doing yoga and mindfulness training. Her plans for a mindfulness centre were put on hold while she helped on the community paramedic team covid floors. Jacques says, “I had the right mindset to be on those floors last summer and fall thanks to the mindfulness training and yoga training I had been doing. I lost a friend to covid back home, a sibling of another first responder. The shift-work, the healthcare system shortages, we feel the pressure of the population on our calls, many are anxious, fearful, and stressed. We are very high achievers in a system that isn’t balanced, we give so much and the demands just go up and up. It is unsustainable, with only 4% of paramedics retiring. We need to try new ways and make sure people who retire are not in pieces.”

A paramedic in Ottawa since 2009, Roy knows first-hand how demanding the job can be, “tri-service first responder daily work has a chronic impact, reminding me of death by 1000 cuts. The impact builds over time, no one calls 911 when they are having a great day. Paramedics are regularly exposed to illness and distress”, Roy says, “this can wear you down. You feel it all around you. If there is a trigger in your life or another really hard call it can be overwhelming. This past year has been tough for everyone in different ways, for paramedics, as an example, there is the heavy and hot PPE where every call is more complicated with public health protocols, you can’t read facial expressions so the human connection is reduced and the levels of tension are higher.”

The Ottawa First Responder Foundation focuses on first responder mental health resources for the tri-services, paramedic, fire, and police. Over the past year, each team member has seen first-hand that mental health awareness and anonymous support for their co-workers are needed. Spousal support groups for the partners of first responders and educational workshops help create an extended family around first responders and their families. 

Each team member recognizes there has been a lot of improvement in mental health services and mental health awareness both from and for first responders. Roy, Jacques, and Paré want to encourage and support their colleagues who could use more resources or are having barriers to access. “In the past, depression and other mental health conditions were often perceived as a sign of weakness. There’s been a lot of improvement in recent years. People are better informed regarding the causes, the treatments and also about how to minimize the risk of ever suffering from mental health problems,” explains Roy. 

By taking on a supervisory position over the winter, aggravating an old injury, doing night-shifts, and preparing for job transition Jacques shared that making the top finishers was not her goal, “I needed to adjust my expectations to running without injury and completing the 25 km with Frances.” When asked about her hope for first responder tri-services she said, “First responders need more than a clinical psychologist once a week and peer support, what about all the other times? General anxiety, stress, insomnia, head injuries, chronic pain, compassion fatigue. I want to use evidence-based alternative options and walk with people through their healing.”

“We expect to fix everything in 20 minutes, after the third or fourth injury on the job a person doesn’t have any more tools that work or know what tools to use,” shares Jacques, “It is not a choice between meditation or meds, I will use my degree and learning from the East to walk with folks on their journey. Lately, we outsource to specialists for health advice and we need to take personal accountability to minimize our pain, we need to care for ourselves. The privilege required to have time to take notice of nutrition and sleep and other health indicators isn’t available to all of us, “

First responders make many personal sacrifices to be their best and show up when most needed. When they need help, make sure someone is there for them, “we are different yet we are all the same, I like that ALL the responders are brought together under Ottawa First Responders Foundation and it helps fill the gaps, like money to connect people with PTSD services, and spouses too! Who helps the helpers?” Jacques says.

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