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Firefighters on marathon quest to recognize PTSD
Miami Herald - 2/8/2020
Feb. 8--Firefighter Claudio Navas' protective suit is designed to withstand searing temperatures in life-threatening situations. It is thick and bulky and weighs 75 pounds including helmet and self-contained breathing apparatus tank strapped to his back.
Firefighting gear is not designed for its wearer to walk 13.1 miles on a warm and humid morning in Miami. But tromping down streets, over bridges and across the finish line is exactly what Navas and 230 fellow firefighters plan to do Sunday at the Life Time Miami Half Marathon.
Overcoming pain is the point of any endurance event. Navas is purposely compounding the suffering to call attention to his mission: Raising awareness of how Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affects firefighters and how they can get help.
"We'll be lining up by the fire truck at the starting line and we want everyone to notice that we're wearing our gear for a reason," Navas said. "It's a lot to haul around for four hours. There will be chafing, sweating, aching, cramping, but we can take it. The only thing we're not wearing is our boots. We wear running shoes or we would lose our feet."
The forecast for race time has most of the expected 22,000-plus participants groaning in anticipation of the full and half marathons that start and finish on Biscayne Boulevard in downtown Miami. Get ready for 70 degrees and 82 percent humidity, with a 13 mph breeze.
Navas, who calls his campaign "Never Walk Alone," will be joined by firefighters from 10 South Florida fire departments as well as a group of police officers, nurses and members of the military.
Navas, 39, a Miami Beach firefighter and investigator at Station 3, first did the Miami half marathon in full bunker gear in 2015 to honor his friend Danny Alvarez, a city of Miami firefighter who had been diagnosed with PTSD and took his own life in 2014.
"Danny and I went to fire college together and we both loved running," Navas said. "Running saved my life. I wish it could have saved Danny.
"He was receiving therapy and that's important to know. We want to fight the stigma of PTSD. It's not a weakness. We see horrible things, we encounter death, and our brains never forget. We see a child, drowned in a swimming pool. We see people who have lost everything -- their husband, wife, children, dogs, cats, their home, their pictures. We are not superheroes. People see firefighters and cops on TV and they have to realize that's all fake."
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 8 percent of the U.S. population will experience PTSD at some point. Increased risk factors for developing PTSD include living through dangerous or violent events; getting hurt; seeing another person hurt or a dead body; childhood trauma; being in an abusive relationship; experiencing horror, helplessness or extreme fear, or the sudden loss of a loved one. Symptoms include depression, anxiety, panic, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts. Treatment includes finding a support group, therapy and medication.
"We go on one call and we are on the front line of heartbreak, and on the next call we see one of our own get injured, and on a call three weeks later we see a family whose house burned down and on another one we try to rescue an elderly person who doesn't survive," Navas said. "It keeps adding up."
In 2019, for the sixth consecutive year, suicides of U.S. firefighters -- 114 -- exceeded the number killed in the line of duty -- 52 -- according to data from the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, which estimates that only 45 percent of suicides are reported and does not compile figures from volunteer departments.
Another study on the mental health of first responders found that firefighters and emergency medical service personnel die by suicide at a higher rate than police officers, and suffer from depression and PTSD at rates five times higher than the general population.
With chemical exposure part of the job, firefighters face a 14 percent higher risk of cancer-related death than the general population, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Firefighters perform jobs outside the sphere of normal human experience and confront "emotional needs that are unique to their occupations," said alliance founder Jeff Dill, a fire captain who started organizing counseling services for firefighters returning from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Navas, in his gear, ran most of the half marathon by himself in 2015, finishing in 3:18. The next year he walked it with Alvarez's father. He was accompanied by 10 firefighters in 2017, then the number grew to 54 last year. He wants it to keep growing.
"We're trained to be strong, be brave, protect the community and never show our feelings," Navas said. "But we need to learn how to decompress. We need to learn how to talk about it. We need to ask for help and not be ashamed."
Navas is an experienced athlete. He's run marathons and Ironman-length triathlons. He is on the national team that qualified for the world long-distance triathlon championship in Amsterdam in September. But he was not always dedicated to a fit lifestyle. In fact, a debilitating medical condition and stress from his job combined to sink him into depression 13 years ago. Treatment and a running regimen led him out of it.
When Navas had his first seizure, he was diagnosed with cysticercosis, a parasitic brain infection caused by tapeworm.
"For a while, I couldn't drive, couldn't exercise and couldn't do my job because of the seizure risk," he said. "I became really depressed. I started eating too much. I ate two boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts every day."
Medication controlled the seizures, and Navas was cleared for regular duty, "but I still didn't know how to deal with the stress I felt after certain calls. I dealt with it by eating. Once it hit me that I could barely fit into size 36 pants, I decided to do something different."
He started running. First at sunrise, then at sunrise and sunset. His workouts took the place of the doughnuts. Navas, who is 5-6, dropped his weight from 185 to 145 pounds in seven months. He ran his first half marathon in Key Biscayne in 2012.
"Firefighters love the public service, challenge and adrenaline of our job. But when I crossed that finish line, it was a magical feeling. I felt a high I'd never known," Navas said. "You might see a bunch of us crying at the finish line on Sunday. That's OK. Firefighters are allowed to cry."
How to get help
To contact Claudio Navas and his campaign, Never Walk Alone, go to https://www.neverwalkalonemiami.com/about-us
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