On any given night in the city of Lewiston, Maine, when a person with a mental illness is distraught and creating a disturbance and the police are called in, Laurie Cyr-Martel, MA ’97 will probably appear at the scene. If all goes well she saves a life or two, spares her partner a scuffle, gives those involved immediate and dignified attention, and brings peace to a potentially explosive situation.
Siren’s Call is a Call to Service
Laurie has been responding to emergencies since she was fifteen years old. Ellington (Connecticut) was one of the first towns in the nation to allow high school students to run the volunteer ambulance service. “If it hadn’t been for the students, the town would have had no services. That was in 1974. We were trained as EMTs, carried pagers, and when the sirens went off we left class and hopped in the ambulance, which was driven by a teacher. That was my first taste of rescue. I knew immediately that I wanted to be a paramedic. She headed to California for paramedic training, but not before finishing firefighting school, smitten with the siren’s call.”
“It’s the old adrenaline junkie thing, I guess. Considering how many calls I’ve answered and what I’ve seen, I’m sure my brain chemistry has been altered, given the adrenaline and the cortical steroids that are triggered with every call,” she says. “Working with rescue squads in Los Angeles County, I couldn’t ignore worrisome statistics: the average paramedic, after extensive training and intense competition, fizzled from burnout in six short months. Afterwards, most found other professions. I wasn’t willing to do that. So after handling my share of knifings, horrible violence, and worse, I moved back to New England because I wanted to continue doing what I loved.”
Protecting Her Own
Laurie has always kept one eye on the distraught or injured person before her, and the other eye on her partners. With chilling precision, she ticks off the psychological hazards of emergency service and police work. Law enforcement has the highest divorce rate of any profession-75 percent for first marriages and higher for seconds. Then there’s the alcoholism, domestic violence, and suicide rates-all very high. Nobody wants to touch these issues.
Well, almost nobody. Already determined to help those many feel are beyond hope, Laurie refuses to turn away from desperate situations. She has applied for the University of Maine’s doctoral program in public policy, where she plans to learn how to bring more support to fellow officers, and hopes to establish a behavioral science unit at the Lewiston police department. She also authored Responding to Emotionally Disturbed Persons: A Manual For Law Enforcement Personnel, published in 2003 by Staggs Publishing.
Antioch showed Laurie how education could broaden her mind and, at the same time, apply directly to her area of interest.
“I’m able to practice counseling and intervention on the street because Antioch gave me the tools. I have always tried to better equip myself for situations. No matter what class I took, the professors worked with me to meet academic requirements while tailoring it toward my professional interests. That was huge, because without it, my passions wouldn’t have expanded and my goals wouldn’t have come to fruition. The applicability and flexibility made AUNE an incredible experience.”
Now, through perseverance and hard work, she has won the trust of her fellow officers. Some of them knew her when she first moved to Lewiston and worked as a paramedic, then a coordinator of crisis services. When she joined the police force and went to the academy, she was assigned to help officers handle perplexing mental health situations, and they had to learn her methods.
“That took a long time, because they were cops in control of the scene, so how dare I step forward. But when it came to mental health and behavioral calls, more and more they were backing up and going um, okay, you can take it.”
Even though she’s dressed in blues and rides with a partner in a patrol car that floats throughout the toughest neighborhoods, her touchy-feely approach to scenes can still raise skepticism. But she’s proven its effectiveness after a career of night shifts, responding to as many as fifteen hundred calls per year. And yet, she yields in situations involving booze and drugs, “when all bets are off,” as she says.
Laurie speaks with confidence when it comes to situations on the street, but heartfelt concern creeps into her voice when she turns around, so to speak, to see her fellow officers. Technically, she’s assigned to counsel citizens, but she also ends up providing an ear for her colleagues, and that’s what drives her to expand her role one day. Given her penchant for rescue, she’s compelled to face situations and look for a way to help.
In reverent and grateful tones, Laurie talks about becoming part of a family like no other family. She confirms that emergency service personnel and police, in particular, live in a culture that can hardly be understood by those outside. To be accepted is huge, she says. And she has earned acceptance. An analysis of her involvement has preserved the dignity of many of Lewiston’s mentally ill, helped crisis workers and saved money for the whole system. All this, and more, remains her passion, from the time she swiftly bugged out of algebra class and into an idling ambulance.