WKYT Investigates | Obstacles often block benefits for first responders with PTSD

A bill filed in Frankfort would help change that, but it has made little progress.
WKYT Investigates: Obstacles often block benefits for first responders with PTSD
Updated: Mar. 10, 2022 at 4:00 PM EST
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SHARPSBURG, Ky. (WKYT) - To hear Bobby Treadway tell it, as he sits in a room decorated with family photos and fire truck memorabilia, he never doubted his choice to follow in his father’s footsteps as a first responder.

“Like a calling,” he said.

It’s even how he met his wife, Christy; the two were partners at the Bath County Ambulance Service for a while.

But work was not easy. Too many unhappy endings. Too many scenes that were too hard to forget.

“A lot of first responders try to just put that stuff to the back of their mind and not think of it,” Treadway said, speaking to WKYT’s Garrett Wymer on a recent rainy day at the family’s home in Sharpsburg.

“It takes a toll. Your family life. There’s a lot of times mentally when you come home, you still have it on your mind,” he said. “A lot of times you can’t enjoy the time you have at home with your kids and stuff, once it gets to the point where this stuff starts to bother you....”

Here he pauses as the emotions begin to catch up with him.

“You can’t enjoy...”

And there he trails off, choking up, Christy squeezing his hand in reassurance as he tries to stay calm and regain his composure.

[RELATED COVERAGE | Healing at Camp Hero: Addressing first responders’ invisible scars]

Treadway says he takes 18 medications and visits a therapist weekly - at one point going as many as three times a week - trying to deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder with which he has been diagnosed.

“We were both like, ‘What? What do you mean, PTSD? That’s military,’” Christy Treadway said, explaining their initial shock at the diagnosis.

Some estimates say at least 30 percent of first responders are expected to develop conditions like depression and PTSD. But for a profession that is often praised for helping others, some first responders tell us in reality they feel forgotten.

Advocates are trying to break down the stigma that still surrounds seeking help, as the growing need for mental health resources for first responders becomes increasingly evident. Yet first responders diagnosed with PTSD also face obstacles to get some of the help they feel they are owed.

From the day he collapsed on a call in September 2015, Bobby Treadway says he dealt with worsening nightmares and dozens of seizures, spending weeks in the hospital and going through rounds of tests, before being diagnosed with PTSD in May 2016.

But after that diagnosis, the workers’ compensation that was helping the Treadways to pay bills stopped, leaving them in a financial bind. They quickly learned that in many cases PTSD is not recognized, even for those working in high-stress environments like first responders.

“You work for 19 years and you pay into a system that in turn, when you need the system, the system fails you,” Christy Treadway said. “That’s what we’ve been faced with for the last seven years, is a system that has failed.”

The problem lies with state law surrounding workers’ compensation benefits and what some see as an outdated or inadequate definition that requires any “psychological, psychiatric or stress-related change” to be a “direct result of a physical injury” - even for first responders.

“PTSD is a trauma. That doesn’t necessarily mean that to receive workers’ compensation that you need to be missing a limb, have broken a bone or anything like that,” Christy Treadway said. “The mental injury that goes with PTSD by far outweighs any broken bone, any type of physical type of injury to sustain.”

But even when trauma like PTSD is recognized, it can still be hard to prove.

Take applying for Social Security Disability, for instance.

[RELATED COVERAGE | WKYT Investigates: The long wait for SSDI]

Proving any trauma- and/or stressor-related disorder - like PTSD - has a long list of requirements, satisfied by fulfilling the conditions (listed below as they are found on SSA.gov) shown in either categories No. 1 and No. 2, or No. 1 and No. 3:

  1. Medical documentation of all of the following:
    1. Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or violence;
    2. Subsequent involuntary re-experiencing of the traumatic event (for example, intrusive memories, dreams, or flashbacks);
    3. Avoidance of external reminders of the event;
    4. Disturbance in mood and behavior; and
    5. Increases in arousal and reactivity (for example, exaggerated startle response, sleep disturbance).
  2. Extreme limitation of one, or marked limitation of two, of the following areas of mental functioning:
    1. Understand, remember, or apply information.
    2. Interact with others.
    3. Concentrate, persist, or maintain pace.
    4. Adapt or manage oneself.
  3. Your mental disorder in this listing category is “serious and persistent;” that is, you have a medically documented history of the existence of the disorder over a period of at least 2 years, and there is evidence of both:
    1. Medical treatment, mental health therapy, psychosocial support(s), or a highly structured setting(s) that is ongoing and that diminishes the symptoms and signs of your mental disorder; and
    2. Marginal adjustment, that is, you have minimal capacity to adapt to changes in your environment or to demands that are not already part of your daily life.

The federal government has fought the Treadways’ disability claim for nearly six and a half years now.

“I’ve been through the ‘You’ve got to be kidding me’ stage, to where I’ve been furious, to where I’m like, ‘I’m over this,’” Christy Treadway said. “But then, (I’m) like ‘No, I’m not giving up.’”

The Treadways first filed a disability claim for Bobby on November 16, 2015, documents show. They were initially denied February 6, 2016 and denied upon reconsideration May 4, 2016, followed, the Treadways say, by two more hearings, both with rejections.

“This is our last hope,” Christy Treadway said recently, unfolding a letter she had just received in the mail a few days prior, stating that a judge had agreed to review their case after they filed suit in federal court.

It is the final outlet for an appeal.

What if the judge still says no? Treadway bows her head, thinking, then looks up resolutely.

“We continue to pray and push forward like we’ve been doing for seven years,” she said.

She knows their push for disability is their last shot at benefits tied to the PTSD that cut short Bobby Treadway’s career. The clock has already run out on them for workers’ compensation. But they hope that by sharing their story they can continue to raise awareness about the need for change - because they know they can’t be the only ones.

[READ MORE FROM WKYT Investigates]

House Bill 356 filed in Frankfort would alter the definition of an injury for workers’ compensation claims. The bill would no longer require PTSD to be tied to a physical injury for police officers, firefighters and EMS personnel.

The bill was introduced in January, but has made little progress. Lawmakers have filed similar legislation in previous sessions - with similar results.

The Treadways say it is frustrating for so many politicians to claim to appreciate and support first responders, only to continue to allow legislation like that to fall by the wayside. They don’t understand why lawmakers do not seem to realize the urgency.

“I know first responders personally that have committed suicide from PTSD,” Bobby Treadway said.

And, he said, if not for his wife - by his side on the ambulance all those years ago and by his side still - he could have been one of them.

“I don’t know what I would’ve done without her,” he said. “I don’t know if I still would have been here without her, to be honest with you.”


If You Know Someone in Crisis:

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741).

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