* Note to the reader: Some of the details included in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Reader discretion is advised.
Daniel McElroy was working as a medication nurse at the Regional Treatment Centre in the Pacific region on June 22, 2005 when a male inmate came up to him and asked for a PRN, a low-level medication - like an aspirin - that could be given out on an as-needed basis. It was a routine request and Daniel didn’t hesitate.
“Sure,” the affable 28-year-old said, jostling an armful of medical reports and blister packs to get at his keys to the tiny medication room. Once inside, he waited for the door to click shut.
Only it didn’t.
“All of a sudden - Boom! - the door slams open and two guys rush in with weapons in their hands,” says Daniel. “They put the weapons up to me and said, ‘Give me the keys (to the narcotics box). We want the drugs.’”
In a state of shock, Daniel handed over the keys. “None of this was worth my life,” he says. And yet, handing over the keys was just the beginning of what would become a harrowing six-hour hostage taking within the walls of that federal penitentiary.
In addition to a lucrative cache of morphine, benzodiazepine, and stimulant medications like ritalin and dextrin, the hostage takers also found a knife, which they held up to his throat as they talked with the negotiator.
“They were talking about cutting my finger off and sending that out to show they were serious,” Daniel says. “They were saying how they were responsible for other people’s deaths, so that was already on their record.”
One of them looked Daniel straight in the eye and calmly said: “I’m already going to hell so don’t [expletive] around.”
Realizing he might not make it out alive, Daniel began to take stock of his life. “I thought of my fiancée (now wife), my mom, my dad, my family. I didn’t know if they knew what was going on,” he says. “I was thinking: this is a bad way to go out.”
The situation deteriorated as the inmates began consuming narcotics, getting high and acting in an increasingly erratic fashion.
“I cried in there,” Daniel says. “I hadn’t cried for years. I was so sad. I was just thinking about my family and how much I loved them. I wanted to make it through just so I could get back to them.”
At a critical point, one of the hostage-takers actually overdosed and had to be taken to the hospital. Shortly thereafter, the hostage crisis came to a peaceful conclusion.
“When I finally got out the door I just bolted,” he says. “I went from probably the worst time I’ve ever had, to this unbelievable release. Relief.”
His parents and fiancée were waiting for him in the corridor and through tears they embraced him. “I want to go home,” he told them. “Get me out of here.”
If that marked the end of the hostage taking crisis, it was only the beginning of Daniel’s long road to recovery.
When a person experiences a mental injury, the results can be as debilitating as a major physical injury, the only difference being that one is invisible. For Daniel, the symptoms of the trauma he sustained that day were immediate and devastating.
“I responded with a lot of emotional turmoil,” he says. “I’m usually a pretty cool, calm, collected guy, but I was crying. I was irritable. I was cranky. I was low. I felt like my insides were being pulled and yanked in all different directions. I didn’t know how to deal with it.”
Daniel took seven months off and came back to work on a gradual six-month return to work program. He attributes his recovery to the therapy he received from a psychologist in the immediate aftermath of the incident, and his own desire for healing. “I didn’t want to be stuck being a victim,” he says. “A lot of my thoughts were fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of going back to where it happened. Fear of so many different things.
“The best way I could see to manage my fear or to deal with it was to confront it. I’m going to go back there and hit this face on. I don’t want to be the victim. I want to go back and claim what was taken from me.”
His first few days back on the job were somewhat awkward. “It was interesting to see people’s responses to me when I came back,” he says. “They weren’t sure how to talk to me, what they should say. They weren’t sure whether they should even talk to me or not, whether they should say hi or just leave me alone. Or dance around the issue.”
Admittedly, he felt somewhat fragile at the beginning. If he had had to do it on his own, without support from his superiors, things might not have gone so well. “There were days when I just wanted to go home,” he says. “I was just feeling so uncomfortable, with anxiety in the chest and kind of shaky. I wanted to give up. But my managers checked in on me in a meaningful way, in a way that empowered me.
“I had faith in them. I didn’t feel they were out to harm me. They wanted me to be successful. They wanted me to overcome those anxieties, those fears. They were really there for me. They propped me up. They held me up until I was able to hold myself up on my own.”
He recognizes that CSC is trying to change the approach to mental illness that our leaders are taking, to be more compassionate, empathetic, and understanding of the issues facing staff, especially those on the front lines.
“I have been through many different incidents where I’ve seen blood all over the walls, angry guys coming at me, or trying to hurt themselves,” he says. “We are constantly dealing with these very difficult people. Our leaders are now saying, ‘Hey you know what, this can and does have a mental effect on our staff. It affects us in so many ways.’”
Today the registered psychiatric nurse is a fulltime project manager at the Regional Treatment Centre in Abbotsford, British Columbia. “It’s been 12 years and I still think about it. I go back there,” he says. “I need to always check my responses, specifically my anxieties, my emotional responses to things. It will always affect me. I just feel better equipped to deal with it now.”