Skiing Across Alaska: And Now a Word on PTSD

Apr 24, 2011
Outside Magazine

To raise awareness about first responders diagnosed with PTSD, guest blogger Michael Ferrara plans to ski 900 miles across Alaska, south to north, from the Pacific Ocean to the Arctic Ocean, with his dog, Lhotse, trotting beside him. To learn more about Ferrara's quest, read The Man Who Saw Too Much and check out his web site,

Throughout my trip, the subject of PTSD or CISD (cumulative incident stress disorder) always comes up in discussions. The interesting thing is, questions often come in that I don't expect. The resulting discussions open up many new ideas and issues. Recently, a question from a friend led to a discussion about a topic that no one has talked about, but it’s an elephant in the living room.

A combat medic friend of mine and I were talking during this trip.  He said, “Can I ask you a kind of delicate question?” I, of course, said sure. He said, "I know there are guys who get PTSD, but aren’t there also guys who fake it?"

I am sure there are. There are always people who will take advantage. And there is no blood test or X-ray for PTSD. There will always be people who are looking for something to validate their behavior. There are surely people for whom combat or emergency services were bad career choices—crazy in, crazy out. PTSD can certainly become the “bad back” of 2000. The same way on a cold night at Denver General every drunk had crushing chest pain, radiating down his left arm, shortness of breath and a sense of impending doom.

That’s an issue bigger than me. There are people out there who really are injured and people who will be injured. Those are the ones I’m trying to get to. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I don’t pretend to have any of the answers. I’m just trying to get the culture to acknowledge the problem.

But you know it all comes back to the same place, helping each other.  A poser may be able to con a therapist or a benefits administrator. But you ain’t gonna fool the guys who’ve been there. You lie to those folks and they will get in your face.

The conversation then turned to the ramifications of coming out.  My friend was very clear, you tell anyone you’ve got a problem you’re going to be guarding the Swiss Embassy for the rest of your career.  It’s not that different in civilian life than the military.  If you admit your having trouble and/or have developed a substance abuse issue your upward mobility is stopped. My friend asked what had happened with my employer.

I took ownership of the problems. I entered a 3-month rehab program. I put together a 2-year PTSD therapy program. I took daily drug tests and offered to test anytime for anyone. For months I went to N/A or A/A meetings every day. I examined every aspect of my life, the good and the bad. I dedicated myself to service work.

Finally, I was cleared to return to work. I went to Aspen Valley Hospital where I had worked for 25 years.  I was told they had no openings. Then I was told there were opening,s but I wasn’t eligable. I explained I was only asking to work fill in or standby at sports events. Sorry, no work.

A little later I saw two men I didn’t know working a bicycle race  I stopped at the Ambulance barn and asked who they were. The guys on duty told me they were medics from Denver who were coming up to cover special events and shifts.

I called the director and asked to meet with him. There I explained the ambulance district had been my life’s work. I had always had top evaluations. Right now I was in financial trouble from being off work for so long and needed the work. It actually hurt me that people from out of town where working the job I needed at a place I had put so much into.

Well not only did they not put me on, they said once again they had no need for me. Then they handed me a letter informing me that if I came onto the property without permission I would be arrested.

My friend looked at me in wonder. You admitted your problems, you got help, you are cleared to work, what else are you supposed to do? Then he said, “Your career is over.” Looks that way. That’s a disgrace. They should be ashamed.

On the other side, the Aspen Skiing Company took this position. You worked here for 25 years. What can we do to help you get back on your feet? Without that kind of support I wouldn’t have recovered. That’s why one of them was picked by Outside magazine as the best employer in the country.

So what’s the message? The message is keep your secret. That’s the part we need to fix, the employers who find it more convenient to get rid of the damaged employee than help. Especially in the light of the fact that much of the damage sustained is from the work. For the health care worker and for the patient, what’s the greater danger, the recovered sufferer or the sufferer on the job in the midst of mental illness and or addiction? The individual in the midst of crisis doesn’t have the resources, emotional and personal, to fight this battle. 

Thank you for your kind attention.  We now return you to the regularly scheduled program.  

--Michael Ferrara

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web