This article was originally published in the 2015 Langara Journalism Review.
The wind carried the smell of death. Bodies lined sidewalks of the Filipino city of Tacloban and filled the beds of cargo trucks while others, still trapped under the rubble, awaited recovery.
“It’s the worst smell in the world, partly because you know what it is. It is powerful; it sucks the breath out of your lungs. It hits you in the face, it’s sharp, it’s pungent, it’s sour, it’s gag inducing. If it had colours it would be yellow and green. It was horrendous and it was everywhere,” says CBC National Radio reporter Curt Petrovich of the unforgettable odour.
Petrovich, along with colleagues Chris Brown and Chris Corday, were among the first foreign journalists to arrive in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan ripped through the island nation in November, 2013, claiming 6,268 lives. The storm came with record-breaking winds up to 315 kilometres per hour and destroyed up to 90 per cent of the homes in some areas.
Today, just as the Filipino people continue to rebuild their communities and industries with the help of international aid, Petrovich is working with his doctors to recover from the personal toll the storm took on him—a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. The tragedy of Haiyan damaged him so badly that he could not rebuild himself alone.
PTSD is not a disorder but an injury that should be rebranded, according to Dr. Frank Ochberg, a pioneer in the study of PTSD and founder of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, now at Columbia University. Ochberg compares traumatic experiences to standing beside a lightning strike.
“You’re not actually struck by the lightning, but you’re close enough so that the electrical field of your heart is damaged and you go into ventricular fibrillation, and you die.”
If trauma is a lightning strike, Petrovich has stood in the middle of more than one electrical storm. Whether the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan was the sole cause of his PTSD or just the trigger, no one will ever know. (Petrovich covered the Littleton Colorado shooting, Winnipeg’s Red River Flood of 1997, refugee camps in Africa, the deadly mudslide in northern Washington and the aftermath of the Japan’s 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.)
Ochberg’s research shows that repeated or consistent exposure to tragedy and stress can have a cumulative effect leading to depression, PTSD and other physiological changes in the brain.
Petrovich returned to work shortly after his Philippines assignment but found it increasingly difficult to concentrate. He went on to cover the landslide in Oso, Washington that killed 43 people in March 2014. By May, he was having nightmares. He wasn’t sleeping well and was experiencing mood swings. At the behest of his wife, he started to see a psychologist who was the first to suggest the issues might stem from PTSD.
“I thought, wait a second. I’m not a soldier, I’m not a cop,” Petrovich recalls. “If anything, I find it difficult to talk about because I haven’t been in a war. I have colleagues who have probably been through much worse than I have. I was with two people who seem to be fine.”
Many journalists don’t realize they are susceptible to PTSD, says Ochberg. “It’s not just about going to war. It has to do with things that happen in everyday life. It is a mistake to think it is only the military. It’s mainly non-military.”
While accepting the Jack Webster Award for best radio reporting in October 2014, Petrovich recalled the desperation of typhoon victims as they begged for food and water, neither of which he had enough to give away. He spoke to the crowd of journalists at the annual B.C. journalism awards show, recalling how helpless he felt in the face of so much despair, hinting subtly at his own injury.
Describing his symptoms now, Petrovich says he suffers from nightmares, insomnia, mood swings and an inability to focus. A father of two children aged eight and nine, he became aware of his changing personality when his family pointed out that he simply wasn’t himself. They missed their “old daddy.”
Ochberg says a traumatic event can be too much for the brain to handle so, in a way, it shorts out. “Something real happened and it was terrifying.”
While PTSD presents itself differently in every individual, he describes three distinct symptoms.
“Your memory has been changed and it comes at you like an epileptic attack, it knocks your socks off. It’s extreme, it’s unwanted and it can feel like it’s happening to you in the present tense.”
The second part is just the opposite. You’re numb, you’re avoidant. You have less than a full range of human feelings. It’s emotional anesthesia; you’re just not there.”
The third symptom is another extreme altogether. Ochberg compares it to having a fire alarm in the body that won’t turn off. “You’re so much on guard, all of your fear and arousal and alertness switches have been thrown and you can’t turn them off.”
One of the many images that still sticks with Petrovich is that of a small, blue coffin on the edge of the road in Tacloban. It sat on a sawhorse, its luster juxtaposed against the surrounding detritus. “As I walked towards it, my foot slipped on something. I looked down and before I could even say anything, the fixer I was with said ‘don’t worry, don’t worry, it’s just a dog.’ I knew it wasn’t a dog. It had to have been human.”
Petrovich can tell other, similar stories from the trenches but he has shared little of his experience with his co-workers. “Journalists don’t talk about PTSD or mental health. They worry it will affect their assignments or their reputation. I was told when it occurred to me that I might have PTSD, don’t talk about it, because people might start to associate you with somebody who’s not well, who’s not up to the job.”
Despite a six-month absence from the newsroom last year, Petrovich hasn’t shared his story with many co-workers, save for those who have reached out to him first.
Veteran CBC reporter Terry Donnelly made a point of calling Petrovich at home to check in with his old friend. The two go back about 10 years, to when Petrovich moved to Vancouver. Donnelly says he has a great amount of admiration for Petrovich. “He’s one of the best that I’ve ever come across. He’s a massively important storyteller.”
This sentiment is evidenced by his winning of the 1999 Michener Award, presented to him by then-governor general Adrienne Clarkson. (From 1997 to 1999 Petrovich worked on uncovering and detailing how the Conservative party of Manitoba fixed the 1995 elections in a massive vote-splitting scheme. His reporting resulted in an official inquiry and the party has not won an election in Manitoba since the story broke.)
Donnelly recalls that the first time newsrooms considered the impact of secondary trauma on reporters’ mental health was during the Robert Pickton trial in New Westminster, B.C. in 2006. (Pickton was eventually convicted of murdering and dismembering women at his Coquitlam pig farm.)
“Before that it wasn’t even thought of. CBC especially, reached out to its reporters because of what they had to sit through every day.”
Historically, journalists have been left alone with their thoughts,” Donnelly says. He also points out that Petrovich is not a coward. “Every journalist should be as brave as Curt.”
Ochberg notes that, “It has nothing to do with cowardice. It happens to the bravest people.”
While his colleagues describe him as courageous, Petrovich feels he is an empathetic reporter who cares deeply about the people in his stories. “I can put myself in their shoes and appreciate what they’re going through,” he says. “It doesn’t make me weaker.”
Such empathy may actually contribute to the trauma, according to Canadian researcher Anthony Feinstein. “When sympathy for the survivors merges into personal identification with them, the resultant image assumes a different emotional valence, becoming even more moving, disturbing, and, thus, unforgettable,” Feinstein writes in his book, Journalists Under Fire: The Psychological Hazards of Covering War.
He has also done research on the effect of traumatic images on journalists. His 2014 study concluded that just looking at images of trauma was enough to cause PTSD. The study was based on responses from 144 journalists who had to deal with graphic material, such as photos, videos and other media submitted to the newsroom. It concluded that journalists who were frequently exposed to violent or disturbing content were more likely to exhibit depression, PTSD, anxiety and alcohol consumption.
Many Canadian media organizations are doing a good job supporting their staff, according to Feinstein, who has consulted for CNN, CBC, The Globe and Mail and The Canadian Press. He says news organizations need to provide not only hostile-environment training —as has become standard practice in many newsrooms—but also educate their reporters about the psychological risks associated with experiencing or witnessing trauma.
Petrovich, still not fully recovered, is again on leave as of this writing. He was working two days a week out of the CBC Vancouver newsroom until mid-February. Doctor’s orders stated that working part-time was an essential part of his recovery plan. At some point, as Petrovich understands it, some of his colleagues felt that his arrangement was unfair, and that they would “like to trade places with him.”
He expresses hope that he can be back at work by early summer, but adds there’s no way of knowing if that will be possible. It is difficult if not impossible to predict when PTSD is “cured”.
Days after Petrovich left the newsroom for a second time, former senator Roméo Dallaire was interviewed on CBC’s The Early Edition. Dallaire suffered with PTSD and alcoholism after returning from the 1994 United Nations peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, where he witnessed a violent genocide. “I am also injured,” Dallaire told host Rick Cluff, going on to describe how being at work helps him cope even now, after 16 years of living with PTSD. “When you’re busy and working hard, it hurts less.”
Petrovich says leaving his job for the second time has only hardened his resolve. “If anything, I’m working harder now to get better.”