Fall from the “Top of the World”
A World Champion Firefighter’s Battle with PTSD
Most illness or disability has some sort of physical symptom, something you can see on the outside of your body - a pale face, weight loss, a cast, a wheelchair - a symbol that signifies a struggle with health. This is not the case for mental illness and was certainly not the case for the World’s Strongest Firefighter, 42‑year‑old Dwayne “D‑train” Drover.
Born in Lourdes Newfoundland, Dwayne and his brother Billy were always finding ways to get into trouble. They were best friends and liked to compete as much as they liked to spend time together. As Dwayne got older, he began competing in anything that he found of interest. He worked some odd jobs and was always very good at most things he tried. “I would get hyper-focused on something and not stop until I was the best,” says Dwayne. The interest in becoming a firefighter was sparked by a fire Dwayne had in his home as a young child.
“We had a fire in our house when I was around 12 and the work that the firefighters did left quite an impression on me,” says Dwayne. When he moved to Waterloo in his early twenties, Dwayne decided he would try to become a firefighter.
“I always wanted to do it. I decided at 25 years old it was time to go for it. Once I was accepted into the program, I went to fire service school full-time while holding down a full-time job. I was on the go from 8 a.m. to nearly 1 a.m. the next morning. I received the outstanding achievement award at the end of my training, and was hired by the Waterloo Fire Department three months later,” says Dwayne. An accomplishment that is almost unheard of.
Known for his competitive nature, Dwayne decided to train for the Firefighter Combat Challenge in 2009, a tremendous demonstration of firefighter fitness. He worked closely with a personal trainer four to five hours a day to get ready for the challenge.
“My training was very specific, much more functional and well-rounded than what I was doing before. I would run stairs with a weighted vest for nearly two minutes, and then I would drag the 175‑pound dummy 120 feet. It was beyond the pain that you would go through for the race. I was toast after the stairs, so the dummy drag was a mental test as much as anything - lots of explosive training, speed training. I would train with a snorkel in my mouth to restrict the air coming in. I wanted to maximize my anaerobic capacity. Every second counts in a competition, so I wanted to push myself harder than anyone else did,” says Dwayne.
The months of intense training and dedication paid off in 2009 when Dwayne won the World Firefighter Combat Challenge. His championship run in Las Vegas can be seen here.
The article in Canadian Firefighter Quarterly entitled “Top of the World” featured Dwayne’s story. Successful and happily married with one daughter, Dwayne felt as though he really was at the top of the world. It wasn’t until a call that took him to a building on October 3 in Waterloo, where a construction worker had fallen, that it all came crashing down. Dwayne has trouble describing the story of the 23‑year‑old man who passed away on that day without experiencing shortness of breath, tightening of his chest, and recurring thoughts for days afterward.
Dwayne could not get the images, sounds, and smells of that day out of his head. He began to drink more and keep to himself and when he wasn’t busy distracting himself with work and anything that would take his mind off of the flashbacks and terrifying dreams, he began to self-medicate. The worst came in 2015 when Dwayne got the call that his brother Billy had committed suicide by hanging.
“It took me out at the knees,” describes Dwayne. “I went to his place in Alberta and the smell hit me when I entered the house. The worst part was the mess that was left behind. I just remember cleaning the garage floor below where his body was found and I kept looking up saying ‘look what you’re making me do’. It was just too much,” says Dwayne.
It wasn’t until Dwayne - overdosed on prescription medication and was found incapacitated by a friend that he decided he needed help. “I went to Grand River Hospital and the people there were amazing. They connected me with Homewood and I was able to do a stint there to help clear my head and gain valuable tools to help with my symptoms,” says Dwayne.
“You would never think that someone who was as physically strong as I was would be affected so much by a disease of the mind,” says Dwayne. The World Champion Firefighter had fallen from the “Top of the World” and was now contemplating suicide.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, “Post -Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) causes intrusive symptoms such as re-experiencing the traumatic event. Many people have vivid nightmares, flashbacks, or thoughts of the event that seem to come from nowhere. They often avoid things that remind them of the event and PTSD can make people feel very nervous or ‘on edge’ all the time. Many feel startled very easily, have a hard time concentrating, feel irritable, or have problems sleeping well. They may often feel like something terrible is about to happen, even when they are safe. Some people feel very numb and detached. They may feel like things around them aren’t real, feel disconnected from their body or thoughts, or have a hard time feeling emotions. People also experience a change in their thoughts and mood related to the traumatic event. For some people, alcohol or drugs can be a way to cope with PTSD.” (www.cmha.ca, 2018)
Although he would never tell you this himself, Dwayne is particularly focused on improving the lives of others, whether it be by starting a conversation with someone on the street and sharing stories about their lives, or by risking his life on the job to save a perfect stranger. Dwayne wouldn’t be Dwayne unless he was helping people in some way.
That is why he agreed to share his story with the hope that it helps “even one person.” He wants to be part of erasing the stigma surrounding PTSD within the “tough guy” professions. “It’s not the PTSD that kills us,” says Dwayne. “It’s the stigma.”
According to a CBC news article, research was conducted with first responders online between September 2016 and January 2017 by a group of mental health experts from across the country. It is published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. Of the 5,813 participants, 44.5 per cent "screened positive for clinically significant symptom clusters consistent with one or more mental disorders." Statistics Canada has reported that the rate for the general population is 10 per cent. This group also has a significantly higher rate of suicide than other professions.
Dwayne believes that many first responders suffer in silence both because of the desire to seem strong and because they are the “helpers” in our society. “Part of it is wanting not to be a burden. It’s our job to help people. It’s not just first responders either, it’s doctors, nurses, emergency department staff, and counsellors. Trauma doesn’t discriminate,” says Dwayne. “It is so critical that people speak out about what they’re going through.”
Dwayne wants people to know that he understands this invisible disease and that if anyone is experiencing any of the symptoms of PTSD to reach out and get help. “It absolutely saved my life. If I had not asked for help and started to talk about it, I would not be here today.” He has even offered to speak to anyone wanting to reach out to him after reading his story.
Dwayne still struggles with nightmares, reoccurring thoughts, depression, and anxiety but he believes that every day is a new opportunity to grow in his healing. He is confident that he will overcome his battle with PTSD. He knows his life will never be the same but he is turning his experience into hope for others.
Help is available
If you or someone you know is suffering from symptoms related to PTSD there are a number of services available in Waterloo Wellington.