Constable: Suburban ultramarathoner with PTSD works to help firefighters under pressure
His voice catches and his eyes water as Ryan Mains tells this story from his days as a combat medic in Iraq. Hearing him tell it makes me gasp and forces me to dab my eyes. Reading it might not be much easier, but it is essential to who Mains is today.
"I can still see it clear as day, as if it is happening this morning," says the soft-spoken 41-year-old husband and dad, as he sits at the kitchen table in the family home in Huntley.
A combat medic with the 3rd Infantry Division pushing into Baghdad at the start of the war with Iraq in the spring of 2003, Mains had near-misses with mortars and sniper bullets, and he had the grim task of realizing when to stop treatment and zip a comrade into a body bag. With the city under U.S. control, Mains was part of a team providing emergency care to the residents when he got the call about a traffic accident.
"A pickup truck with a family in it," he says softly, recalling the dad and grandfather were sitting in the cab, while the mom, grandmother and kids were in the open bed. Traveling too fast, the truck slammed into the back of a military vehicle, leaving twisted wreckage and a pile of mangled passengers.
"I came to the first one, which was a little girl. I felt for a pulse, and I thought that I felt one," Mains says. "So I went to pick her up so I could start treating her, and that's when I saw she didn't have a head."
That image never fades.
Last month, Mains won his disability case recognizing the post-traumatic stress disorder that forced him to leave his job as a firefighter-paramedic with the Woodstock Fire and Rescue District. His career as a first responder is over and he gets 65% of his old salary while he's a stay-at-home dad, raising Jude, 9, and Lucy, 5, with his photographer wife, Danielle.
Danielle is the one who got Mains the help that saved his life. Never having the time or tools to deal with the trauma while in the Army, Mains got called home early in May 2003 after his stepsister was killed by a drunken driver. He acquired new traumatic memories as a firefighter-paramedic, especially when he could not save the life of a child hit by a car.
"They just piled on to things that were already there," says Mains, who figures he hit rock bottom in March 2019. He used all his sick days, couldn't get out of bed some days and even thought about suicide, he says. In her search for help, Danielle found the Illinois Firefighter Peer Support organization, where a fellow firefighter phoned Mains to offer help.
"By nature, we don't like to be helped, because we're big, tough firefighters," Mains says with a smile, acknowledging that he was hesitant to talk to the peer support team. "But they played such a huge role in, frankly, keeping me alive, getting me to where I need to be, and helping my wife with that."
Two days after that phone call, he traveled to Upper Marlboro, Maryland, to become an inpatient at the International Association of Fire Fighters Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery.
His fellow firefighters in Woodstock donated their sick time to Mains and supported his decision to leave the force in October 2019.
"I felt that I was letting them all down," Mains remembers thinking. Seeing a therapist and psychologist, both of whom he still sees every month or every other month, helped Mains realize his PTSD is a disability. Now he does what he can to encourage others to get help.
Last year, he launched "Run for Our Lives," a fundraiser for the Illinois Firefighter Peer Support charity. Vowing to run 1 kilometer for every U.S. firefighter who died by suicide in 2019, Mains ran 130 kilometers, just under 81 miles.
"It took me 21 hours. The wheels kind of fell off at mile 50," says Mains, who managed to refocus and complete the final 30 miles.
This year, suicides declined, so Mains is running 115 kilometers, which is about 71.5 miles. Just after the clock strikes midnight to welcome in May 22, Mains will start his run from Woodstock along a bike path to Crystal Lake, where he'll pick up the Prairie Path to St. Charles. When he reaches the Bethlehem Lutheran Church parking lot, he'll turn around and hope to make it back to Woodstock by 5 p.m.
At least 92 runners are participating virtually, says race organizer Dana Tress, a physical therapist specializing in concussions at Smith Balance and Concussion Center in Crystal Lake. Last year, the race raised $13,000 in donations, which enabled the Illinois Firefighter Peer Support group to add a service for police officers. For details or to donate, visit run-for-our-lives.org.
"It feels like a cakewalk compared to last year, when I had to go all the way down to Geneva," Mains says of this year's mileage. His wife of 12 years has a harder day, he says, because she drives to aid stations to make sure he has water, food and fresh clothes.
They met when Mains was a Woodstock firefighter and Danielle was shooting a 2007 Christmas Eve video in her job with the Northwest Herald, capturing various people reciting a line from the poem that begins, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." Feeling rejected when she didn't have a business card to give him, Mains says his firefighters persuaded him to run out to the parking lot, where he did get her phone number.
The couple have talked to their kids about PTSD and help them understand why their dad can no longer fight fires. When he came home from his inpatient treatment, Mains still had moments of complete lethargy, could be irritable and was bothered by unexpected noises. He continued with outpatient treatment at Amita Health Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates, which his son called "Calm-Down School."
A therapy dog, a black Labrador named Montana, sits at Mains' side.
"When I start to get overwhelming and anxious, he alerts me," says Mains, who has learned tools to help him stay calm. Sometimes, his dog applies "pressure therapy" by lying on his chest.
Mains says many people are helping him and others with PTSD and mental health issues. On Friday, the Black & Gray Brewing Co. in East Dundee kicked off its second annual release of an #endthestigma session New England IPA, which will be available at the bar, at Woodman's and at a few other local bars beginning May 11. The brewery will donate 10% of sales to the Illinois Firefighter Peer Support team.
"That's really how we stay afloat. It's people like Ryan, who really want to help," says Tom Howard, executive director of Illinois Firefighter Peer Support. "Our group is almost entirely funded by other firefighters we've helped, or understand how we help."
Mains comes from a firefighter family and volunteered at age 18 to work alongside his dad, Joel, in his Kane County hometown of Burlington. His dad eventually retired from the Downers Grove Fire Department.
"Run for Our Lives" started "as a way to pay back the help that was given to us by the Illinois Firefighter peer group," Mains says. "Whether it's facilitating getting treatment, just being an ear to talk to, or someone to get coffee with. Whatever you need to have at that moment you need help, they are there to help."