An anaesthetist and rural generalist at Proserpine Hospital, Dr Deborah Simmons OAM is used to treating patients in crises and helping Queenslanders in all kinds of locations and situations.
In May 2020, Deborah was working at Mackay Base Hospital and visiting Moranbah to help staff there prepare for COVID-19, when she received a call to say there had been a mine explosion at Moranbah, with an unknown number of people injured.
Dr Deborah Simmons: It was when COVID had all started and we were doing a lot of training at Mackay Base Hospital on how to put on your PPE etc. And I asked my boss if I could go around to the rural hospitals so I could teach them. I had just finished my teaching at three o'clock in the afternoon and at 3:15, there was a phone call came into me saying that there's been a mine explosion, and could I come back? Because they didn't know how many people were going to be injured.
It's a one-bed ED and we had five men come in, four of which were severely burnt, and I felt like their lives were all in my hands and I had to make sure that I did everything I could to make sure that they got to Brisbane.
I didn't realise how much it affected me until I did my first presentation on the incident. Within the first sentence, I just couldn't stop crying. One night, my husband got so worried about me, he called one of my colleagues who came over and my colleague then rang my GP and within the next week, I went to Townsville into a private psychiatric clinic and that was all immediately, you know covered by WorkCover and WorkCover got involved.
WorkCover has now opened up its doors significantly to frontline workers to go and get help as far as post-traumatic stress disorder is concerned.
Dr Jess McLellan: From the first moment we met, her main goal was getting back to work, but she did work with us to slow that down appropriately, but that positive mindset was definitely one of the things that helped in her recovery and getting back to work. Between the treatment team, Deb, WorkCover and her employer, we were all able to have a case conference as well, which I think really helped Deb's confidence in everybody was working together to support her, herself included, and we were able to take our time appropriately to do a graded-based approach for return to work and she's done really well in that role and is pretty much back to full duties, is my understanding.
Dr Deborah Simmons: The relief I had after I left that clinic was just amazing because I now had a plan of how to get better. I had a fantastic psychologist, brilliant psychiatrist, and then obviously everyone at work was very supportive and WorkCover rang me every month to make sure everything was going well. Nothing was nothing was too hard for them, and I've been on a back to work program since January 21, and now I'm coming off WorkCover in August, and I'm better, which is great.
I've also opened up to everybody about this as well. So even our new interns, I try and talk to them early on about mental health and making sure that you seek help if you need it and I tell them my story right from the beginning to try and demystify and get rid of that stigma. So, first of all, I'd say to the people who might see these people struggling is to ask them if they're okay. Try and open up that conversation because that's the hardest thing. And once, once you open up that conversation, then people will open up hopefully and talk to you.
I'd really just like to put it out to all frontline workers to please seek help if you need it and look, WorkCover is there for you and you know, they really have been a great help and I can't thank WorkCover enough because I would not be where I am today if they hadn't been so supportive with everything that I needed.
Deborah sprang into action as a first responder to treat five workers, four with severe burns.
It wasn’t until later that the full gravity of the disaster and its effect on her mental health started to fully reveal itself.
'I felt like their lives were all in my hands'
“I felt like their lives were all in my hands and I had to make sure that I did everything I could to make sure that they got to Brisbane. I didn't realize how much it affected me until I did my first presentation on the incident,” Deborah said.
Deborah was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and checked herself into a private psychiatric clinic in Townsville. Her treatment was supported by WorkCover Queensland.
She said having the support of her employer and the right team of treating professionals around her was key to starting her recovery and planning how she would safely transition back to work.
“The relief I had after I left that clinic was just amazing because I now had a plan of how to get better. I had a fantastic psychologist, brilliant psychiatrist, and then obviously everyone at work was very supportive and WorkCover rang me every month to make sure everything was going okay.”
Now, after working hard on her recovery and slowly increasing her duties, Deborah is back to her pre-injury work. She says her experience after the Moranbah disaster has ultimately made her a better doctor.
Opening up the conversation
Deborah is keen to destigmatise seeking help for mental health, particularly for doctors and medical professionals. She says that opening up the conversation is the single most important thing.
“Even our new interns, I try and talk to them early on about mental health and making sure that you seek help if you need it... to try and demystify and get rid of that stigma,” Deborah said.
“What I'd say to the people who might see these people struggling is to ask them if they're okay. Try and open up that conversation, because that's the hardest thing.
“I can't thank WorkCover enough because I would not be where I am today if they hadn't been so supportive with everything that I needed.”
WorkCover has also simplified the claims process for first responders diagnosed with PTSD. We now presume that their PTSD was related to an incident at work (unless there is evidence to the contrary), so they don’t need to discuss the event in detail with us. Find out more.