Content warning: This story deals with issues around mental health and suicide and may be triggering for some readers.
On the 9th of April this year, Tony Jenkins, a father-of-two from Newcastle and paramedic of 28 years, was taken into a meeting with two NSW Ambulance managers.
In that meeting, his family now claim, Jenkins was asked about his use of the opioid fentanyl. The 54-year-old allegedly confessed that the trauma of his job had become all-consuming, and he had been self-medicating with drugs he’d taken from work.
The family claim he was then dropped at his car – and, after being explicit about his battle with his mental health and his need for help – was allowed to drive home.
“They didn’t take minutes in that meeting, they didn’t give him a support person,” his 27-year-old daughter Kim tells Mamamia.
“They let him drive home, after he admitted to taking drugs, and after admitting to having mental health problems.”
Only Tony Jenkins didn’t drive himself home. Instead, he took himself to Booragul near Lake Macquarie and suicided. He left behind his wife Sharon, 52, and two daughters Kim, 27 and Cidney, 24.
According to NSW Ambulance guidelines, it’s mandatory for official minutes to be recorded in such meetings. NSW Ambulance would not comment on the meeting specifically but told Mamamia they will continue to support the Jenkins family and their workforce.
“NSW Ambulance extends its condolences to the family of Mr Jenkins and will continue to do everything we can to support the Jenkins family and our workforce during this difficult time,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
“Our priority is the safety of our employees and the NSW Government is investing $48 million to improve health and wellbeing, including mental health of NSW Ambulance staff.
“As investigations are now underway it is not appropriate for us to comment on individual circumstances.”
Just over a month after losing her father, Kim Jenkins fronted the country as an audience member of Q&A and decided to tell his story.
“A little over a month ago he took his own life while at work,” she said on Q&A on Monday night. “We understand now that Dad was using fentanyl at work to cope with the stress of on-the-job trauma, as well as assault.
"We don't send soldiers to war for 28 years because of the PTSD that would cause. So, when are we going to start looking after our paramedics, as well as our first responders?"
Kim went on to tell the panel after her dad's death, she found "huge amounts of correspondence" between her dad and various members of New South Wales Ambulance management in his locker.
"Correspondence that were complaints my dad had made, saying that the men and women out there were having trouble … and that it needed to change.
“Most of (the notes) were from my dad saying that he had gotten no response. Or that the response he was given wasn’t adequate.
“One of the biggest stresses we’ve heard is that these paramedics don’t have any idea what they’re going to and it’s one of the biggest anxieties because they could be going to deliver a baby or something wonderful, or they could be walking into a home where there’s a man waiting with a serrated knife, which is the incident my dad went to.”
According to the ABC, opioid prescriptions in Australia increased from 10 million per year in 2009 to 14 million per year at the end of 2017, an overall increase of 40 per cent in eight years. At the end of 2017, a report from the National Coronial Information Service (NCIS), found an 1,800 per cent increase in fentanyl-related deaths between 2010 and 2015.
In 2008, a Senate inquiry led by Robyn Parker into the management and operations of NSW Ambulance made note of how paramedics felt they were not adequately supported after attending traumatic incidents.
"Numerous submission authors criticised the Service for failing to respond adequately to officers following traumatic incidents," the final report reads. "They were particularly angry that they were expected to attend jobs soon after being involved in a traumatic case."
Despite formally recommending the organisation reviews how it handles paramedics and traumatic incidents, Kim tells Mamamia her family believes those support systems still aren't adequate.
"One of the biggest things we want to petition for is it to be mandatory to get help. When a police officer goes to a traumatic job and is struggling, they take their gun off them straight away. They get them help.
"The parallel in the ambulance world is fentanyl."
Kim says when she pulled together with her mother and sister to make sure her father's "completely preventable" death didn't happen to anyone else, she was astounded about how many other people have raised their concerns about the organisation in the past.
"The reason we are doing this is to put pressure on NSW Ambulance to actually make changes. We have made suggestions, privately and publicly, to how they can change things. What was so surprising to us was that we kind of thought initially we were crusaders, but we soon realised there are a decade worth of people who have been fighting this.
"It's all been done and said before."
Kim's story, and the death of her father, comes as conversations regarding the safety of paramedics hit fever pitch nationally.
Earlier this month, 63-year-old paramedic Paul Judd told Nine News he was “gutted” after two women who assaulted him as he arrived on a job were spared jail.
Judd was punched and left with a broken foot in the assault in 2016 as he and a colleague tried to treat a patient. Amanda Warren, 33, and Caris Underwood, 20, will spend no time in prison for the assault.
Immediately, ambulance workers protested the decision by spraying graffiti messages across their vehicles.
Days later, another Ambulance Victoria worker was assaulted on the job after being spat at and punched by a patient he was treating.
Mick Stephenson, the director of emergency operations at Ambulance Victoria, told the ABC soon after the industry would be calling on tighter laws regarding mandatory sentencing for those who assault first responders.
"We would like to see offenders of that nature jailed such that a general message of deterrence is sent to the community, in the hope that it doesn't happen again," he said.
Last week, in Victoria, attacks on first responders that result in injury were classified as a category-one offence, meaning the court must impose a prison sentence on the offender.
But while public outcry has fixated on deterring members of the public from assaulting first responders, Kim, her sister and her mother, believe work needs to be done at a management level at NSW Ambulance to ensure the support is there should they need it.
Though it's only been a matter of weeks since they lost their much-adored father and husband, Kim says they've only been able to storm the media with such passion because of each other.
"In the first few days, we concentrated on our family and coming to terms with the shock. But everything we heard from NSW Ambulance made us question what went on before hand. This wasn't an accident, this was so preventable, so we decided to get up and do something.
"It's almost cathartic, in a sense. I keep thinking, because it's so preventable, we can't be responsible for this happening to someone else. We have a close family and our family has banded together enough to be able to do this. If there was just one of us - if I didn't have my mum or my sister - there is no way we would be able to do this.
"When one of us breaks down, someone else can take over."
Kim says there's one thing she wants to be clear and loud about: Yes, fentanyl abuse is an issue. But it's not as big of an issue as the incidents leading paramedics down the path of self-medication.
"The fentanyl is a really big issue, but just making fentanyl difficult to get to isn't going change anything."
Instead, the Jenkins family believe it's crucial to look into why so many paramedics are tempted to use it.
If you're suffering from depression or anxiety and need help, or just someone to chat to, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.