Michael Ferrara, PTSD support for those who save our lives
Like many adrenaline junkies, Michael Ferrara, 61, has spent most of his time in Colorado accomplishing feats that only the super-fit could manage: high mountain rescues, climbing mountains, and saving lives of the like-minded adventurers in and around Aspen.After moving to Colorado in 1977, he became a deputy sheriff, then a Ski Patroller and a paramedic. He worked in the coroner’s office as a certified medical-legal death investigator, and later joined Aspen’s Search and Rescue Team – and trained search and rescue dogs. In December 2010, Outside magazine published a story about Ferrara and his plunge into despair, and his diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from experiencing first-hand multiple tragedies during his work. After the story came out, Ferrara saw it as an admission of his failure despite many reading it as a success story. “When the article came out, the sudden notoriety was unnerving,” he said during a phone interview earlier this week. “People would come up to me and I got 300 responses by e-mail, letters, or people calling me and thanking me for the courage to come out to say what happened to me.”One woman told him that she was watching her husband go through the same ordeal, and after reading his story she could finally talk to him about PTSD.”In Aspen people responded well to the story, but anytime you get an eight-page article in Outside magazine, people are going to say negative things. The story they wrote – it was all true.” Fourteen months later, Ferrara modified his view and can see why people see it as an inspiration.Common afflictionMany different people can go through PTSD, he said. “River guides can go through it when they lose a client on the river. I know a ski patroller and guide who is living in his car. I’ve talked with him about it.” Looking back on events that caused PTSD, he recalls seeing tragedies on a Mount Everest trip in 2006 thinking, “I can’t go anywhere without seeing tragedy and death.”Later, his best friend and climbing partner was killed in an avalanche. He carried him down and prepared him for his wife. “After that, I was eating Percocet as fast as I could.”After responding to a SIDS death and knowing what the baby’s mother was going to go through, he couldn’t stop crying. “I was confronted at work. I couldn’t make eye contact, and when I admitted my addiction, I was sent to Aspen Mental Health for evaluation.”He began an out-patient program so he could begin his recovery program at home and be with his animals. On his own, he found a counselor who knew how to treat victims of violence, who have PTSD, and experience flashbacks, and what he calls “slide shows.”He was put on a no-adrenaline diet: no mountaineering, ice climbing, or alpine skiing. Seeking out professionals at the University of Colorado’s Depression Center, he discovered tools for dealing with his PTSD and addiction. He began EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy that uses alternating left and right taps or beeps designed to move the brain’s awareness back and forth between the right and left sides – the effect stimulates a new way of thinking. “The horror show lives in your left brain,” he said.Nordic therapyEMDR taught him to go past the scenes he kept playing over in his mind. He believes Nordic skiing mimics the EMDR therapy with the left-right-left-right motion on Nordic skis. He started Nordic skiing every day with his search and rescue dog Lhotse. Ferrara admits he still feels badly about the suffering he put Lhotse through while battling drugs and depression. “We would go for a run and then I would turn around.” Lhotse was used to being active all day, every day with Ferrara. “Through all of it, he never lost faith in me. I need to repay this, and then came up with the Alaska idea.”No one has ever skied across Alaska and he wanted to raise awareness of the benefits of cross country skiing and PTSD.”I thought, this is terrific for Lhote, it was just a long walk and the trek would be the biggest EMDR program.”However, the trip ended quickly due to lack of snow in March, but from it he created the First Responder Recovery Project website as a place to draw resources about treatment. Ferrara’s story got people talking about PTSD. The next step is recognizing a person in trouble and how get them help, he said. Recently he spoke at a trauma conference at Texas A&M. He talked to members of a helicopter flight crew that crashed. “Since then the pilot committed suicide, one is doing drugs, one isn’t coming to work. I was asked to talk to them. I’m not a psychiatrist but I am a guy who has been there.”People who are traumatized like this try to tell everyone they are OK, Ferrara said. “But you can’t tell me I’m OK because I know you aren’t. Why would you be OK? Your friends were killed.”When you don’t take care of what has happened to you, you end up where I was, he said. “I’m lucky because I’m here. I can show you what happens when you say you are OK. One of my big points is that no one is going to help us, we have to take care of ourselves.”He spoke to people in a small Alaska town where a snowmobile crash, killed many people. What resulted was a horror show, he said.”All the people involved were friends and people in the town were having a problem getting through it. People don’t realize how difficult rural EMT is because you know everyone; you know their family.”Life is goodFerrara is still on a search and rescue team but is more cautions about what missions he chooses. “Lhotse and I went out on avalanche recovery, Lhotse found the body, and I was nervous how I was going to do. After two years of therapy I’ve learned how to not go home and run the slide show over in my mind.”He has also learned to protect himself by choosing to opt out of missions.Last year on a mission in a wilderness area near Aspen he knew that he was going to have to tell a family about a death. He opted out of this mission. “What damaged me so badly was families. I’ve stood in morgues with mothers or fathers and it never gets better. I need to protect myself from things.”Now, life is good, he said. “I’m outside with my dog, working.”Ferrara manages a 1,200-acre ranch near Snowmass. After 30 years working in emergency rooms, coroner’s offices, and serving on mountain rescue teams, he is slowing down and choosing what he wants to do.”I lost the ability to see beauty,” he said. “I thought I was in a war for 30 years that was never going to end. I had to learn how to see beauty again.”
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