Our first responders often operate in the most toxic environments, but, until recently, little or no effort has been made to keep those toxins contained. In this episode of The Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast, Dr. Daniel Amen and Dr. Nancy Bohl-Penrod discuss the lessons learned by the first responder community after 9/11 and the steps that are being taken to improve conditions.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome to the Brain Warrior's Way podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.
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Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome back. We're having this great discussion with Dr. Nancy Bohl-Penrod, psychologist, an expert in serving the first responder community. Nancy, one of the reasons I wanted to have you on is I have this huge heart for not only veterans, but first responders. I was a veteran and as an infantry medic, a first responder. As we've looked at their brains here over the last 30 years, I see three patterns. I see emotional trauma because almost all of them have it. When you talk to them about their histories, if they've been on the job for any length of time we see their emotional brain start up, which may be why they drink more, because they want to calm it down.
I see a toxic exposure, not so much in the police officers but definitely in the firefighters, you know, inhaling carbon monoxide, cyanide from burning furniture. Their brains do not look healthy overall. It looks like they're being poisoned. Then physical trauma to the brain, and that could be the falls that they've had during their career. So, emotional trauma, physical trauma, toxicity, which all by itself is going to give you issues with depression, PTSD, anxiety, panic. When a masculine, driven, I don't want to say macho but I sort of do, because that's clearly in the veteran group that I served with and that I've treated is they don't like to say, "I'm sad." It comes out more of them being, as you said, short tempered, irritable. Depression in guys is very different than depression and girls, because a girl will say, "Oh, I'm sad," and cry. A boy or a man will often say, "I'm not depressed," but they're really irritable and negative.
Dr. Nancy Bohl-Penrod: I agree.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Are first responder departments even thinking about toxic exposure?
Dr. Nancy Bohl-Penrod: Oh boy. I think they are moreso now than they did before. I actually, I mean this is just my take on it, but when the ... Now when you're talking about toxicity, you're talking about hazmat material, stuff like that? Is that [crosstalk 00:04:02]?
Dr. Daniel Amen: Yes. But even just normal fighting a fire that the carbon monoxide and the poisons released, and yes, they have masks on while they're fighting the fire, but as soon as they're done they take it off. The particulate matter in the air is still very high and still very toxic to them. Unfortunately in New York City, we're seeing the fallout what we're 18 years later of 9/11, and the elevated incidents of mental health challenges and physical challenges is just rampant among first responders.
Dr. Nancy Bohl-Penrod: I think 9/11 has changed some things regarding that. I went to 9/11 with six FBI agents. I was in Manhattan but I didn't go down to the digging site at the building, but I was in Manhattan that had a lot of debris and smoke, and they stayed there. I was there for about a week. I had left the Pentagon, came back to California. They stayed there. Well, we now have three that have died from lung disease, one from brain cancer, and they did attribute it to 9/11. Now, one of the things I found out about that was this: they had their cars, so the FBI gave them a car. They stayed in one of them, used that car for 10 years and inside the car was everything you're talking about, in the seats, in the console, everything from 9/11 from the air was in the car.
When they started looking and testing, what they were expecting the firefighters to still use, their equipment, their clothing, all of that, somebody said, "Wow, maybe this is what's causing some of the problems is because we're expecting them to be exposed to these chemicals over and over and over again, and we've never looked at how it impacts them." I have a fire department who made a decision that they would not sleep with their turnout gear right next to their bed, because they would work a fire, come back, put their turnout gear, work at fire, come back, put their turnout gear. They realized that's right next to them sleeping the whole time, while they were sleeping with that next to them, that it was impacting them. So, they now spray their turnout gear and put it away and they don't have it right next to their bed. So, I think you're absolutely correct on the new awareness. I think it's getting better is my thoughts.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, and the first way to deal with it is to decrease exposure, so to teach them to keep their equipment on longer so they're not breathing in that particulate matter. I love that they don't keep their soiled equipment next to them. And then support the four organs of detoxification. So kidneys, drink more water, gut, eat more fiber, liver, kill the alcohol because alcohol decreases your livers ability to do its job of detoxifying the body, and then sweat more with exercise and taking saunas. It's not hard. You just have to set aside the time to do that on a regular basis. But dealing with the physical toxins, it's just crucial. Do you have a great story from your practice that you can share of someone who's had a mental health issue and how you've helped them?
Dr. Nancy Bohl-Penrod: I mean, I have a lot of them, but probably when you said that the one that came to mind the most to me is somebody that wanted to quit the job, wanted to get to get divorced, was totally overdoing the drinking and actually didn't want to live any longer. The reason why I smiled when you said that was because he had given up. About two weeks ago, he actually reached out to me and said there was a incident that occurred. He was telling me about how he handled it and he said, "And I just want you to know I'm getting ready to retire." He said that he had spent 31 years, and that he was still sober, still with his wife and family, and he wanted me to know because he was getting ready to retire that he felt I had played a part in it. I mean, I know I played a part in it, but he's the one that had to make all the changes. Well [crosstalk 00:10:00]-
Dr. Daniel Amen: Right. But it makes us feel good that we matter, right? I mean, that's why they go into their job to be first responders, because they want to matter. I think those of us that are therapists and physicians and helpers, you know, we're happy when we are purposeful.
Dr. Nancy Bohl-Penrod: [crosstalk 00:00:10:25].
Dr. Daniel Amen: And it's not true for everybody, but it's certainly true for the temperaments that serve other people. When we come back, we're going to talk about EMDR and how EMDR can help first responders overcome trauma. Stay with us.
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