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PTSD sidelines first-responder to shooting of Manchester police officer

New Hampshire Union Leader

October 19. 2013 7:28PM
Beland quietly took a disability retirement after 22 years with the Manchester Police Department, unable to work because of the post-traumatic stress disorder that followed Doherty's shooting. (Mark Hayward/Union Leader)

MANCHESTER - Myles Webster didn't kill Dan Doherty when he shot the Manchester police officer on the West Side last year. But Webster did kill the career of Manchester police Officer Eric Beland.

Last month, Beland quietly took a disability retirement after 22 years with the Manchester Police Department, unable to work because of the post-traumatic stress disorder that followed Doherty's shooting.

Beland, 46, was one of three officers who first arrived at the shooting scene and worked to keep Doherty alive in those critical minutes. Beland returned to work the next day, determined to take the shooting in stride and assist the investigation.

Soon, the symptoms started, Beland said. When he closed his eyes, he saw Doherty shot on the ground. He could barely sleep, and when he did, visions of the wounded Doherty roused him. He thought and talked about Doherty nonstop.

And then came seizure-like episodes, when his eyes would go blank, he'd utter guttural noises, his arm would twitch, and he'd collapse. In fact, Beland collapsed in May 2012 when Mayor Ted Gatsas was giving awards to the drug unit, where Beland had worked for 12 years.

"I didn't realize at the time what I saw," Beland said about the wounded Doherty. "I just wasn't mentally prepared for it. It was horrifying to me."

Long associated with war veterans, PTSD is gaining a foothold among people with no exposure to war. The recently released fifth edition of the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" adds language that specifically mentions first responders and rape victims, according to the Vermont-headquartered National Center for PTSD, which is part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

It also adds a new diagnosis for children younger than 6.

Paula Schnurr, a psychologist and deputy director of National Center for PTSD, said the diagnosis of PTSD first appeared in 1980. It has grown in acceptance since then, especially after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, she said.

"There's a greater recognition that PTSD exists and is something that can happen to anyone," said Schnurr, whose office operates out of the Veterans Administration Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt.

Between 6 percent and 7 percent of the adult population will have the disorder at some point in their lives, she said.

Emergency aid

Beland and two other police officers arrived seconds after Doherty was shot. Officers Brandon Murphy and Thomas Gonzalez worked on his legs, where five bullets had struck Doherty. Beland handled everything above the waist.

Beland talked to Doherty to maintain his consciousness; he tried to joke that it was only a flesh wound. He removed Doherty's shirt and vest while the officer screamed in pain. He looked into the eyes of a face that was turning color.

"'He's turning gray' ... 'He's passing out,'" the officers would tell each other.

At home that night, Beland said, he cried with his family and thought the trauma would work itself out. But he talked about Doherty nonstop and wanted to visit him frequently.

"Anyone else was nonexistent. This went on for weeks," said his wife, Selene Beland. "Myself, my kids and officers that worked with Eric knew something was wrong."

On April 16, Beland collapsed in his bathroom. The following month, he collapsed during the ceremony with Gatsas, and it seemed obvious his career was over. With one child in college and the other in high school, Beland said, he was not ready to retire.

Traumatic duty

A Manchester native, Beland joined the police department after graduating from St. Anselm College. He was one of the first on a bicycle patrol. As a detective, he worked the Mary Stetson murder, a case in which the victim's torso was found in a West Side river.

He also was a crime scene photographer, exposing him to blood splatters and dead bodies. And as a detective in the drug unit, he notified people when their loved ones died of drug overdoses.

"Every single case I looked at, I looked at in a clinical way," Beland said. His colleagues warned that he would take his work home with him, and he did. He brought files home to work late at night, but it never affected him, he said.

Police Chief David Mara said Beland did invaluable work in the drug unit, doing much of the behind-the-scenes work that takes place with prosecutors once an arrest is made. "He was one of three people who saved an officer's life. In my opinion, they acted heroically," Mara said.

He said police officers are more likely to suffer divorce, heart attacks, diabetes and suicide. In the past, the culture was to suck it up and deal with it, but that only made the problem worse, he said.

Now, the department has 15 officers who are trained peer counselors, he said.

"We recognize that police officers, firemen, first responders ... you think of what they do on a daily basis, it can have an effect on them," he said.

Settlement reached

Beland was on workers' compensation since his collapse, and last month the city made a $100,000 payment to settle any future claims, Beland said. The city remains responsible for any health care bills related to the PTSD, he said.

He now collects disability retirement, which uses a more generous formula than a standard retirement. His monthly pension is about $3,940, according to the state retirement system. He said the settlement will pay for health and dental insurance for his family. He noted his wife had to quit her job as a medial secretary to help care for him.

Beland said he is improving. He started out with 10 seizures a day; it's now down to a few a week. He knows what triggers them and tries to avoid them - bright lights, loud noises, large crowds.

"It has to stop on its own," Beland said about his seizures. "My brain has abnormal, unbalanced energy, and it has to get rid of it. It's like my brain throwing up."

For months, Beland fought the notion of PTSD, he said. He blamed his seizures on physical problems, and he believed he would quickly recover. But after reading about the ailment, he came to accept it. He said everyone in the police department and City Hall has been understanding.

According to records available at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration website, 1 out of every 20,000 full-time municipal government workers in 2011, which would include police officers, lost time at work because of PTSD. Across the country, that amounted to 530 workers, the OSHA statistics say.

Schnurr said some people still resist a PTSD diagnosis. "The message to get across is this is a normal reaction," she said. PTSD is treatable, and most patients improve over time, she said.

Beland remains on six medications and sees three clinicians: a neurologist, a therapist and an "eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapist," who uses a treatment that teaches the brain to file away traumatic events correctly.

Beland said he can never return to police work, but he doesn't want to stay retired.

He wants to write a book about his experiences with PTSD as a police officer. He also is considering drug-and-alcohol counseling, a profession that would allow him to help out the kind of people he often arrested - street-level junkies who sold drugs to support their habits.

Recently, he went to New Hampshire Technical Institute to discuss the certificate program.

"It was so nice getting up to meet with them," Beland said. "I felt I had a purpose again."

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