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Karen Hodge’s Story – Sergeant, York Regional Police

As a police officer of almost twenty-three years, I am used to stress. I have always had coping mechanisms and support systems in place to deal with whatever the job has thrown at me. I have been very fortunate to live a fairly normal, stress free personal life. Until the year 2017.

In 2017, I began to experience stressful life events in my happy little world. Our family moved homes, which is a normal event that you can expect to be stressful. However, while this was happening, my mom had to have an emergency hip replacement. The rehabilitation for this was exhausting for my mom, luckily my dad was available to assist in her recovery. My youngest daughter began having fainting spells without any notice, requiring her to be transported to hospital from school on two occasions. As you can imagine, getting that phone call from her school put my emotions into overdrive as well as my vehicle as I was waiting at the doors of the ER (in uniform) for her arrival. My daughter required significant medical attention that found us at Sick Kids regularly. All of this while in the midst of a move.

A month after our move, life seemed to be back on track. My family enjoys participating in sanctioned motocross races. As such, we headed out to the Nationals in August to take in a weekend of what has always been one of my mechanisms for relieving stress. I have been racing dirt bikes for most of my life and it provides me with a sense of calm and excitement at the same time. This weekend did not provide such. On the first evening of racing, my husband was involved in a single vehicle crash on the track. He wasn’t able to walk back to our pits, they wouldn’t let me tend to him or his bike. When the medics brought him back to our trailer, it was clear to me that his injuries were greater than he was aware of. I have been to crashes before, just not with those that I love. I packed him up and drove him to the nearest (small town) hospital. I left my two young daughters with friends and hoped I would be back shortly.

I wasn’t back shortly. The hospital staff did not receive my husband quickly and I had to watch as he struggled to breathe. Advocating for my injured husband became my job at that moment. The skills that we as police officers have began to kick in, sometimes unconsciously. The staff were less than concerned about my husband as they had seen several other racers come through their department from the same race that day with minor injuries. Once he was seen, they quickly learned that he had double collapsed lungs and needed urgent care. I have seen this happen before, but not with a loved one. My kids were back at the track, unsure of what was happening with their dad and I was not able to comfort or support them at this time. My husband was transported to the ICU at a trauma centre in Kingston after approximately 8 hours in hospital.

I went back to the track, grabbed my girls and made the calls to close friends and family for help. We spent the following week in a hotel next to Kingston General with my parents as my husband was cared for by some of the best medical personnel. He managed to recover, but there were some moments that definitely changed my outlook on how quickly life can change. I already knew this as a police officer, but to be on the other side of things was new for me.

2017 also presented me with the loss of my Nannie who was instrumental in my upbringing. She lived the most wonderful life and her loss was felt pretty deep. 

Weeks after the loss of my Nannie, I had to undergo emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix. As you can imagine, I was ready to bid farewell to 2017! What I didn’t know was that 2017 was a walk in the park in hindsight. Life has a strange way of preparing you for life.

Fast forward to 2019. I received a call on May 5 from my dad that he was at the hospital with my mom. Apparently, she had had a heart attack. My best friend is a nurse in the ER and I was thankful that she was working and knew that my mom was in good hands. My family is very close, we always have been. I have an older brother that has special needs that has always lived with my parents. I was immediately concerned for him and his ability to understand and cope with this scenario as I had no idea what to expect. We learned very quickly that my mom would require a triple by-pass and valve replacement. As a police officer, I no longer had any control over how this was going to play out. I think I was actually scared. Scared for my mom, my dad, my brother, my kids, my life changing if she didn’t make it.

I mentioned earlier that I had amazing coping mechanisms and support systems to deal with work stress. At this point, those strategies were not working for me personally. While my mom was in hospital, I began to get very sick. So sick that I too required hospitalization. Was this my body’s way of reacting to a stressful situation? I may never know.

My mom recovered from her heart surgery with the amazing assistance of my dad. He was there for her every minute of every day. He never left her side. I too recovered and was able to return to work. I was so thankful for the team that I worked with at the time. They were so supportive of me and welcomed me back to the workplace with open arms.

Two months later, I received the most dreaded call of my life. My brother called me, I could barely make out what he said, but I did hear “dad at hospital”. My dad was a volunteer at a major race track in southern Ontario. I called the hospital to try to get information. I was delivered a death notification like I would never wish on my worst enemy. I am a death investigator. I am a Sergeant. I am a caring human being. I have delivered death notifications dozens of times and it is the one thing I have always prided myself as being really good at. I understand the importance of getting it right, knowing that it will never be right and that my actions will be remembered forever by that grieving person.

I went through the motions that happen when a loved one dies. But I have never felt so broken before in my entire life. I went back to work after the prescribed time allotted in our collective agreement. I had seen others do it over the years after losing loved ones and they all seemed to transition without any trouble. Or did they? But the following months were very difficult. My dad was the rock for everyone. He was a full time Poppa, father, husband, victim services volunteer. What I also quickly learned, he was also my support system for everything.

My personal life was ever changed. My ability to stay focused and on task at work was decreasing too. I would zone out while talking to people and not follow through with promised tasks. I was beginning to get short with my kids.

My best friends were telling me that I needed to take some time away from work. I really felt that I had to show them that I was “fine.” I am a police officer. I can handle this. They kept on saying it and I kept ignoring it. I had been visiting with my psychologist weekly to help me cope with my dad’s passing. He too started asking me to take some time off for myself. I thought he was crazy. Did he forget that I was a police officer and I don’t need time off?

I was asked to take part in a television show that was being dedicated to my dad. When I agreed to take part, I was met with mixed emotions and a feeling of being stalled. I wasn’t able to focus on anything other than figuring out how I was going to remain composed on TV talking about my dad, because I was still in shock and learning how to live without him.

This was a turning moment for me. I am human and I was grieving. Grief did not care that I was a police officer! I decided to take some time off and work on me. I didn’t really have a plan, but I knew that I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing. I met with my psychologist weekly and worked on strategies to improve my personal coping mechanisms. Because quite frankly, I had spent my whole career only focused on how to cope with work stress (which isn’t a bad thing). I took a leave of absence from work and spent seven weeks looking after me, grieving and learning how to live a life without my dad. I hadn’t intended to take that long initially, but as I began healing and talking to people, I recognized that you can’t put a time limit on grieving.

I was excited to go back to work as I really love my job. Again, my team welcomed me back with open arms and I can honestly say that their support, empathy and kindness aided in my journey and willingness to want to come back to work. I have been very open about my mental health and that I am healthy for looking after it.

The moral of my story is that everyone suffers in life, even police officers. I experienced a cluster of very stressful life events within a short period of time recently. My plate was full. It likely will be full again. I am so thankful that I took the time to look after myself and now know when and how to start clearing my plate when it starts filling up.

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