Former Aspen ski patroller tells first responders how trauma-filled career led to rock bottom
March 13, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A career filled with tragedy, trauma and “liquid grief” came with an enormous cost, and it drove Michael Ferrara to consider the most extreme option.
“I clear the weapon, hold it up to my head and pull the trigger,” Ferrara said. “I realize this is a dress rehearsal. I know I’m in trouble.”
Ferrara told his story to a group of area emergency responders Monday with the hopes of educating them about the warning signs and the consequences if mental health disorders, such as post traumatic stress disorder, are left untreated. He said first responders are twice as likely to die from suicide than being killed in action.
Ferrara’s career in emergency services included jobs as a coroner, sheriff’s deputy, a medic at Denali and Mount Everest and 35 years as a ski patroller in Aspen.
“Although the military has a lot of resources for soldiers coming back from combat with PTSD, it’s almost unheard of in the civilian world,” Ferrara said.
His mental health issues were not necessarily the result of a single event. Rather, it was the cumulative events over time.
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In Aspen, Ferrara was a deputy and the coroner when a jet carrying 20 people crashed short of the runway.
It was his job to sort through the bodies, and the details he shared were vivid.
“I remember saying to another deputy ‘No one should have to see something like this,'” Ferrara said.
He then had to go to a hotel and meet with more than 40 family members.
“When you complete that triangle is when it’s emotionally devastating for us,” Ferrara said of emergency responders who experience traumatic events.
Being an emergency responder in small communities also presents unique challenges.
“In these active communities, the people who die are like us … so it really impacts us,” Ferrara said.
While working ski patrol, Ferrara found himself shaken up and unable to ski after a sketchy avalanche rescue that not only put his life at risk but also those of his co-workers.
There was also an event where he realized the critically injured skateboarder he was treating was his friend’s son.
Ferrara recalled seeing his girlfriend afterward.
“She gets one look at me, (and) she’s gone,” Ferrara said.
He said he was no longer a hero, and he felt like he was of no value to anybody.
There was another incident involving an infant who suffocated while sleeping, and Ferrara said the mother held the lifeless child for three hours.
Ferrara said the drips of grief had accumulated over the years, and he struggled to get help for himself. He became addicted to pain medications and lost his job for stealing narcotics.
“I cracked,” Ferrara said. “I took everything I could get my hands on.”
Ferrara was eventually able to find the help he needed. His treatment involved a “no-adrenaline diet,” and cross-country skiing aided his recovery.
“It was the most repairing thing that I probably could have done,” Ferrara said.
Ferrara shared his story with Outside Magazine in a 2011 article, "The Man Who Saw Too Much," and he said he hoped other emergency responders would take steps to avoid personal crisis and seek help.
“It needs to be easy,” Ferrara said. “It needs to be accessible, and it needs to be appropriate.”
Ferrara’s visit with local emergency responders was organized by the Northwest Colorado Community Health Partnership.
“A lot of times, I think we think of first responders, and (we think) they know what they signed up for,” said Mara Rhodes, who focuses on NCCHP’s opiate abuse initiatives.
Ferrara will be speaking again during an event for members of the community May 15.
Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue firefighters were among those who listened to Ferrara.
Deputy Fire Chief Chuck Cerasoli said there is local awareness about many of the issues Ferrara discussed, but more can be done within the first responder community, especially when it comes to combating stigmas surrounding mental health issues.
“It’s a group of people that don’t look for support,” Cerasoli said.