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Liberty story needs nuance and empathy

Last week the Trumbull County Coroner released the autopsy finding that a Liberty Township firefighter and paramedic died of “acute fentynal toxicity.” And, again, the over-wrought story, high on spectacle and short on empathy, has been plastered across Mahoning Valley news.

The story starts with the death of my brother, John Beard. My family has been rocked by John’s death, and we have been caught in the upheaval at the fire department. It’s time that readers hear a more nuanced narrative that approaches what happened to John and his colleagues from a human and public health perspective. We need to talk about the wellbeing and mental health of our first responders.

Here are the facts:

John Beard served his community and hometown with integrity, generosity and bravery. He was my brother, a son, a father and a friend loved by many. He was also a deeply private person.

My family, Liberty Township and the Mahoning Valley lost an incredible person and public servant.

John overdosed on the night of April 11. He was taken by ambulance to the St. Elizabeth’s emergency room. Paramedics reversed the overdose with Narcan. He was discharged at 11:34 p.m. He died in his sleep a few hours later.

He did not get the drug he overdosed on from anyone at the fire department. He got it from a woman in Vienna, who, to my knowledge, has faced no repercussions.

He was mourning the April 10 death of our father. He was off-duty.

Two firefighters have been forced to resign. One has been forced to retire. Another was investigated but is back on the job.

My brother and these other firefighters were close friends who texted one another constantly with sarcasm, inside jokes, emojis and ridiculous memes.

Every text message used as “evidence” to destroy their careers and reputations can be interpreted in multiple ways, and no one has been given the benefit of the doubt.

Our country is in the throes of an opioid addiction and overdose epidemic. Many first responders struggle with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorder. They spend their days helping people living with deadly addictions stay alive and get treatment. They pull mangled bodies out of twisted metal on dark highways. They enter burning buildings to rescue people who are trapped or lost in the smoke and heat. Their work takes a heavy toll on their mental health and overall wellbeing. John knew this and was well known for being the person his colleagues could turn to when they were in distress. John championed their cause because it was his cause.

Did my brother have a drug problem? Possibly. Does that take away from his years of service? No. Does that diminish him in the eyes of our community? It should not. Did the Liberty firefighters who have faced censure have a drug problem? I’m not sure. Should they have been publicly shamed and forced to resign? Absolutely not.

The response to John’s death should have been concern, not suspicion. Did he use drugs to deal with chronic pain, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder? Was the same true for his colleagues? Was it possible to take the tragedy of his death and do some good? As far as I can tell, no one has asked these questions.

Since this story broke in late May, we have learned that a number of people in the Liberty Fire Department had prescriptions to help them cope with depression, anxiety and chronic pain. Liberty Township, the Liberty Police and the Fire Department had an opportunity to take a hard look at the toll the job can take on good people. The International Association of Firefighters Local 2075 had an opportunity to follow the excellent mental health and substance use screening and treatment guidance on its own website. All had an opportunity to demonstrate an understanding that addiction is a chronic, treatable illness.

John’s colleagues should have been offered counseling and other support services. Instead, they were vilified and refused an opportunity to explain when they needed compassion and understanding. They lost their best friend, their careers and their good reputations. The township threw away the decades-long investment in their training. The community lost expert emergency service providers and peace of mind.

Let’s stop the frenzy for a minute, take a breath, and think carefully about the words we use and the assumptions we make. Stop the accusations, stigma and punishment. Stop the hyperbole, misinformation and shaming. Let’s thank these firefighters for their 50-plus years of combined service and listen to what they have to say with empathy.

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