It was a priceless moment for Char Symes who says she will never forget when her son, Brad, heard his name called out at the 1994 NHL Draft in Hartford, CT.
“He was so excited,” she exclaimed. “I remember I just stood up and he hugged us and he just ran. He couldn’t get down those steps fast enough to go and shake hands and get up on that stage. It was like, ‘Wow — a dream come true.’”
Selected by the Oilers in the third round, 60th overall, the left-shooting defenceman was elated when he heard his hometown hockey team select him — when just the day before, the Washington Capitals had come calling.
“The Capitals interviewed him the day before and he goes ‘I think that’s the team that wants me,’” said Char. “But when the Oilers called his name, it was priceless. It was a great moment and he had many moments thereafter.”
Brad’s moments were far from fleeting. After playing three seasons with the Oilers ECHL affiliates, the Wheeling Nailers (one season) and New Orleans Brass (two seasons), he decided to hang up his skates and pursue a new career path: firefighting.
One of few who had the opportunity to pursue two dreams, Brad was a fun-loving and reliable individual who was always up for a good time with friends, family and co-workers. But there was a side to Brad that was not often seen by this close-knit circle.
After 13 years of service, struggling with what his family has identified as work-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the 38-year-old took his own life, leaving behind his loving parents, wife, two young sons and many friends.
According to TEMA Conter Memorial Trust (TEMA), between April 29 and December 31, 2014, 27 first responders died by suicide in Canada due to Operational Stress and PTSD. In 2016 alone, 10 first responders and two military members have died by suicide, and those are just the ones they know about.
“I’m not diagnosed with PTSD but I’ve seen a lot of my friends, some family, some colleagues — I’ve seen them struggle through Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” said James Ward, York Regional Police Officer.
One of four founders of United by Trauma, a foundation dedicated to educating the public and encouraging an open a dialogue about PTSD, Ward says that change has to start somewhere and the best way is to address it head on.
“Mental health in general, it’s just so important to get rid of the stigma of being able to admit to people that you do have some difficulties,” he said.
“You talk to people about depression or anxiety or anything like that, those are all part and parcel of PTSD. If we can work towards getting rid of the stigma related to PTSD, maybe people will open their minds to not looking differently at other people suffering from mental health issues.”
Giving his all
When Brad was drafted by the Oilers, he was in his third season playing for the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks, and was finally seeing the reward for all the hard work he had been putting in since he was five years old.
When the Symes family moved to Ardrossan, a small community just east of Edmonton, a young Brad and his seven-year-old brother Brent were faced with a new adventure. The small hamlet within Strathcona County had a grocery store, a church, a ball diamond and a hockey rink.
“The hockey rink, it’s a little bigger now, but the hockey rink was the hub of the world,” said Char.
“It seemed like every kid in Ardrossan played hockey,” said Brad’s father Stan. “So the kids went to school one day and they came home and both his older brother and Brad said they wanted to try hockey.”
The Symes boys were not phased by their “late-bloomers” status compared to kids who had been skating there since they were three.
“When [Brad] did something it was always full bore,” said Char. “When he got that helmet, he couldn’t get it on his head fast enough.”
|Brad Symes playing for the ECHL Wheeling Nailers. Photo provided. |
Up and skating within a month, their love and passion for the game grew as time wore on, cultivating their skill on the ice. While Brent went off to play college hockey with the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, Brad moved from bantam and played a year with the AJHL’s Sherwood Park Crusaders before he was drafted by Portland.
Brad’s first professional season saw him start with the Oilers American Hockey League affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs, but then sent down to the ECHL Nailers that same year.
“I think when Brad was sent down by the Oilers and he got sent to [the New Orleans Brass], I think at the time he saw some guys down there that were a lot older — and I’m saying 32, 33 years old — still thinking about the dream and Brad just figured that he wasn’t going to wait that long if it didn’t happen,” said Stan.
“When it didn’t happen he decided to come home. I always told him if his hockey became like a job and not fun anymore, to come home.”
That’s when Brad, 24, looked to change careers, trading in his helmet for a new, shiny red one.
“[He] and I were together one day and I asked him what he was going to do and he said, ‘Dad, I want to be a firefighter,’” said Stan.
Following in his father’s footsteps — Stan retired as district fire chief in Edmonton after 35 years on the job — Brad started to prepare himself for what would eventually become a 13-year service with the Edmonton Fire Department.
“He always wanted to do that,” said Char. “Hockey was a bonus for him. He enjoyed and loved that sport and he realized how much work he put into it but how other people did the same thing and never made it.
“I can remember taking him to the fire hall and he used to just love going. I’m sure if I had of taken him every day he would have gone every day. So when he looked at his dad and he just said, ‘I always wanted to be like you, I always wanted to be a fireman.’”
United by trauma
First-responders often come face-to-face with tragic events that can have long-lasting affects on their mental health.
“Literally, people are dying,” said Nicole Taylor, an operating nurse and veteran.
A founding member of United by Trauma, Taylor was the driving force behind the foundation’s early beginnings due to her own personal experience with PTSD.
“My husband came back from Afghanistan in 2003 and I noticed that he had changed and we started going through a lot of struggles as a couple,” she said. “Just before he was deployed I had lost a child very late in pregnancy and so I started going through a very deep road of depression myself.”
“Then he was sent overseas for eight months and came back from his deployment. I was starting to get on the right path at that time, but I could see that he came home a very changed man: very short-tempered, very withdrawn, he just didn’t want anything to do with normal life anymore.”
Recognizing the signs and symptoms that her husband was exhibiting as PTSD, Taylor was faced with the hard decision of reporting her husband, who at this time had returned to a training base in Ontario.
“As a nurse I knew obviously that I had to turn him in but as a wife I started going through lots of struggles and thinking that I was betraying my husband,” she said.
Within a 24-hour span, Taylor made the difficult decision to report her husband who ended up getting help himself.
“Many years later, on our road to recovery, I could see there [were] so many military families and first-responder families really struggling with mental health, and so I thought, ‘let’s do a run to raise awareness and to help people shed that stigma about PTSD,’” she said.
I Run and Rock
|PTSD Service dog Bolt was named in Brad's honour. Photo provided. |
Founded in 2011, United by Trauma’s plan was to host a simple event — now known as their signature event I Run and Rock — to show their appreciation to all emergency response workers and military members for the emotional sacrifices they make every day.
Their simple plan gained momentum and support that eventually led to the inaugural 2012 event, organized by volunteers from various emergency services, military and medical personnel that are passionate and driven to raise awareness and reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues within the first-responder community.
“We have a 1K, 5K and 10K run, and then we have a rock concert after and then in between that time we have a big education component about trauma, suicide, resilience, awareness,” said Taylor. “We also have static displays of the military and first responder vehicles… Basically it all focuses around the first-responder community and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
This year, the Newmarket, Ont., organization will be holding the fourth annual I Run and Rock event on May 28.
Funds raised are put towards the foundation’s supplemental program, Ernie’s Journey, designed to provide first responders, soldiers and veterans affected with PTSD with specific dogs to help mitigate its affects.
“Nicole herself has a [PTSD] service dog,” said Ward. “The results that we saw with Nicole and some other people that had service dogs just inspired us to go in that direction.”
Working in tandem with In Canis Speramus, a group dedicated to training exceptional working dogs for individuals who depend on service dogs for critical tasks, each dog United by Trauma donates is named after a first responder or soldier that has taken their life via PTSD suicide.
“First responders, in some cases — severe cases — can’t even leave their house,” said Ward.
“They go into a bunker mentality. They’re hyper-vigilant to the extreme, it’s almost like agoraphobia — fear of crowds — they just don’t want to be outside or deal with the public. They can be frightened, in the military side of things, they can be frightened by loud bangs [that happen] all of a sudden, and it can cause them to drop to the ground. It can be embarrassing for people and shocking.”
|Bolt and two other PTSD service dogs sit at the base of a helicopter for training. Photo provided. |
Bolt, a working German Shepherd, is a PTSD Service Dog named in Brad’s honour.
“Brad’s story just really reached out to me,” said Taylor. “He was so willing to help everybody else he forgot about himself. He was plagued with so many things that affected him — and that’s very typical of what we do as first responders because that’s our make-up.”
After a series of networks connected Stan and Char with the United by Trauma foundation, they presented the Symes family with the opportunity to name the dog.
“Char and I sat down with our oldest son Brent and we came up with name,” said Stan.
“Brad and his two little guys — Max, now 11, and Leks, 9 — they always liked the movie Bolt — he was a little dog. At the end of the show, [a building] caught on fire and Bolt went in and rescued his owner and dragged them out. So we thought it was very appropriate that we named this dog Bolt.”
Fighting the stigma
|Left: Stan Symes with his son Brad. Photo provided. |
It was the end of a hard-working day at Oilers training camp. Tired, hungry and ready for some R&R, Brad called his mom.
“He phones from the rink and says. ‘Is it ok if I bring a few people home for supper?’” said Char.
“I think he brought every person from the team home. But that’s Brad, ‘I’ll just bring them all home for supper. My mom will just cook for all these people because [at the end of the day] they all have to go to a hotel and I can go home.’”
At this Sunday’s game, the Oilers will complete mental health awareness month by hosting United by Trauma, Bolt and welcoming the Symes family.
Across Canada, there are thousands of first responders that are struggling, frequently in silence, with PTSD. And that’s not to say that Brad didn’t talk about his job.
“He had a couple of really difficult situations.... It’s really hard being a firefighter sometimes when you go into a burning building and sometimes you don’t always get to save people like on TV,” said Char.
“There were a couple times he was truly, so emotional, and it was so hard for him because he had two little boys. To have that happen, it was hard for him, even though they do have people to talk to at the [fire] hall, you always come home to your mom or dad I think, no matter how old you are, to talk about stuff like that.”
Stan said that Brad never wavered when faced with extreme circumstances, willing to go above and beyond to help friends and family at the drop of a hat.
“Brad never complained to anybody, he just kept his feelings within himself,” said Stan.
“When we went through training and everything, being a firefighter and being a first responder, you have to step up to the plate, We always had a saying, ‘As firefighters you never showed a dent in your armour.’ And Brad never did. He was always, always there for people, and we could never see his dents. He never portrayed them.”
First responders see tragic events every day, witnessing human suffering up close, and sometimes it can be difficult to cope with the aftermath, which can include recalling the smells, remembering the sounds and reliving the event itself.
Due to the stigma that surrounds mental health, Ward says first responders have the hardest time talking about what may be bothering them.
“One of the hardest things for a first responder to do is to admit that they’re suffering and that they’re having a hard time,” he said.
|Brad Symes. Photo provided. |
“We’re all type-A personalities and we’re supposed to be the helpers. We’re supposed to be the ones helping everyone else. It's hard for a first responder to admit [that] maybe they need a little help and finally say, 'Things just really aren’t going right for me right now.'”
But for Brad’s parents, they implore the importance of talking about it.
“I think it’s important because if they don’t talk about it and people do not know — you truly would not know if somebody was suffering,” said Char.
“If people don’t feel like they can express that and talk about it then we’ll keep on losing people. We’ll keep on losing young people who don’t talk about it. You have no idea how many people that is, every single day.”
“He had quite an effect on people,” said Stan.
“When Brad passed we had a number of people come up and tell us that if it wasn’t for Brad they would have joined him. They just looked at it as ‘Brad saved our lives.’”