TAMPA — For 30 years, Stephen LaDue worked as a firefighter-paramedic in Tampa. He responded to many difficult calls that left him with mental scars, said Megan Vila, his sister.
Before he killed himself in September, the father of three told his sister that he felt like the system had failed him, Vila said.
"During his last year on call, he began suffering from cumulative stress overload, which led to depression, alcohol abuse and suicide," Vila said.
She said her brother first suffered silently, unable to tell people about the stress of his job without being seen as weak. When he did try to get workers’ compensation, he found out that mental trauma was not covered. Only people with physical wounds qualified, she said.
"For so long the stigma has been there," she said. "First responders were told, ‘suck it up, buttercup.’?"
After her brother’s suicide, Vila lobbied lawmakers for months, making 15 trips to Tallahassee. She told them first responders needed to be able to get mental treatment and paid time off.
On Tuesday, inside the Tampa Firefighters Museum, she got what she wanted. Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that extends workers’ compensation benefits for first responders being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. The law also requires agencies to provide education training related to mental health awareness.
The change puts Florida among a handful of states offering such benefits.
"If we expect people to take care of us, then we should be doing the same thing for them," Scott said just before signing the bill. The governor thanked lawmakers who helped push the bill along. He also credited Vila and her efforts.
"It’s not easy to get bills passed," Scott said. "It takes a lot of hard work. It takes a lot of individuals. It takes a lot of Megans."
Just behind Scott was Vila, her husband, Tampa Fire Rescue Captain Ricardo J. Vila, and their six children. Also in attendance were family members of other firefighters who had committed suicide.
Vila and LaDue’s father, Stephen LaDue, 79, said his daughter was very passionate about getting the law passed.
"She was like a one-man show," her father said. "She gathered so much information and brought it to the people in Tallahassee."
"The most beautiful thing was that there was not one dissenting vote," he said. "To think that my son had something to do with that."
He said it was painful to watch his son fall apart during the last year of his life.
"He tried to get help," the elder LaDue said. "But he couldn’t get any benefits. After 30 years of helping everyone else, it hurt him to think that now he couldn’t get help."
Contact Jonathan Capriel at 813-225-3141 or [email protected] Follow @jonathancapriel.