Dalila Vroom saw her husband’s death coming from a mile away.
It was almost like a slow motion version of one of the many car crashes Const. Robert Vroom had to break down in his role as an expert collision reconstructionist for the Abbotsford Police Department.
She believes the trauma he experienced while working in that role lead to the heart attack that killed him at the age of 50, and she wants WorkSafe BC to acknowledge as much – so she can receive a widow’s pension.
“He died as a result of the toll inflicted upon him by the excessive long-term demands of his extremely stressful police work,” Vroom said.
Vroom was born in New Westminster and raised in Revelstoke. His wife said he came from a long line of civil servants.
“His dad was a police inspector, and his grandpa was a military man,” Dalila said. Since she met him – when she was 23 and he was 22 – he had always wanted to be a police officer.
She said he was confident, always smiling, and full of life.
“He was big into nature, so we went dirt biking, ATVing, boating, and camping. We just had a lot of fun,” Dalila said.
“He loved his job, he loved life, and he loved us,” she said, referring to herself and her son.
A smart man, Vroom always looked for new challenges – so in 2003 he accepted a role as an accident reconstructionist.
He would attend car accidents and figure out how they happened using his detection skills and a knowledge of physics. Vroom’s expertise would also require him to attend homicides and suicides to determine the step-by-step process that lead to loss of lives.
When he took on that role, he took a lot of pride in the important position, Dalila recounted. But changes within his department ended up making the demanding job more difficult to perform well.
“There were eight people in his section [when he began]. But then there were budget cutbacks, and then there were only two guys, Rob and his partner,” she said.
As the role was highly specialized, neighbouring police forces would sometimes require his services too.
“The problem was Port Moody had nobody, so he was doing Abbotsford crashes, deaths, and murders and he was and also doing Port Moody, and when Chilliwack was short too, he was doing three places,” his wife said.
“So basically he was overworked, and he couldn’t get the breaks that he needed in between, and it did him in.”
Dalila recalled many times when Robert would return home from an overnight 12-hour shift, eat breakfast, and head back out when a call came in. They would also be called back from vacations, or have a day at the slopes cut short when duty called.
“It burned him out to the point he couldn’t do it anymore,” Dalila said.
The changes in Vroom started off small.
He would experience headaches every now and again. But over time, Dalila said, they became more frequent, then turned into migraines, which affected his vision.
The ailments travelled from his head to other parts of his body. Vroom started sweating uncontrollably and suffered painful stomach issues.
He went from taking Tylenol every few days, to requiring strong headache and anti-anxiety medication.
Vroom began having trigger areas that would induce panic attacks. Visiting places where he had attended an accident scene could leave him shaking and sweating. It got to the point where he was fearful of going most places in Abbotsford, she shared.
Having seen enough, Dalila encouraged him to approach WorkSafe BC for some help.
Vroom was given psychological testing and then sent back into the field after the WorkSafe BC assessment showed no signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, she said.
The issues did not go away, Dalila said, and her husband began to sink deeper into a mire.
“He started getting nightmares, and then he couldn’t sleep. He had to play his DVD player all night and he would just watch sitcoms and comedies.
When he would sleep, Dalila said, his previous cases were like films playing over and over again in his head. All the stuff he’d seen; the blood, the guts, the body parts, would replay again and again.
Despite Vroom’s reluctance, Dalila said she forced him to approach WorkSafe BC again.
He saw six psychologists and two psychiatrists but the methods they used were only making Vroom worse.
“The nightmares that he had in the night, he had to talk about in the day,” Dalila said, “They were opening up that closet, so now he had no space in his life where he was free of it.
“He would go to treatment, and he would tell what happened. He would open up the closet of horrors and then it would be time up. Time to go home. Then he’d come home and I’d have to de-escalate him cause he’d be furious.”
While the treatments were ongoing, Dalila said, Vroom developed a rash, as well as pins-and-needles all over his skin.
“His anxiety got so bad he put himself in lockdown. He wouldn’t come out of the house,” she said.
“His PTSD that he had from work turned into Major Depressive Disorder, and that was from the WorkSafe treatment,” Dalila believes.
“Which wasn’t treatment,” she continued. “It was like torture to him.”
She knew if something drastic didn’t happen soon, her husband would die, Dalila recalled.
“I went to the chief. I went to the police union. I went to human resources. I went to WorkSafe. I went to the doctors and said, ‘You need to help this guy or he is going to kill himself’,” she said.
“You need to pension him off. He can’t handle it. He can’t handle the treatment,” his wife told them all.
“All he wanted was peace. To be left alone.”
A work advocate was provided by the police union and Vroom was pensioned off by the Abbotsford PD in December 2017, days after his 50th birthday.
Within seven months, he was dead.
“Before he died he kept saying, ‘I can’t take this any more. I can’t live like this anymore,’ and he dropped a whole pile of weight,” Dalila said. “He stopped eating, and he stopped drinking, despite my son and I pleading with him to eat.”
On the morning of July 26, 2018, Dalila went to the garden store.
As she left, Vroom was outside in the front yard working on an ATV trailer.
By the time she got home, just a short while later, he was dead from a heart attack.
His treating doctor notified WorkSafe that his premature death resulted, in whole or in part, due to the physical and psychological effects of his work-related extreme PTSD and MDD, Dalila said.
But, since her husband’s death, WorkSafe BC has refused to recognize her entitlement to a police widow’s claim, which would allow her to continue receiving Vroom’s pension.
“They’re saying you can’t die from a mental health conditions,” Dalila said. “But I think you can.
“If you don’t eat, and you don’t drink, and you don’t socialize, and you don’t have contact with anybody, and your emotion is set, you’re done.
“And that’s what caused it,” she insisted. “But they won’t admit to that.”
In an email to The Maple Ridge – Pitt Meadows News, WorkSafe BC expressed their sympathy to Dalila at the untimely death of her husband.
They said Vroom’s claim was accepted for PTSD and MDD as a result of the multiple traumas he experienced in the line of duty and explained how they went about processing Vroom’s claim.
“WorkSafeBC administers an inquiry-based system,” they wrote.
“Staff would have requested assessments for the purpose of treatment recommendations and to determine the permanent impacts his condition had on his functioning. All assessments and treatments would have been provided by highly trained professionals who would understand and be sensitive to the need not to further traumatize patients.”
To the claims of aggravation from the treatment Vroom received, WorkSafe BC said: “We strive and will continue to strive to ensure that treatment and support does not cause additional stress for workers, especially those with PTSD and other psychological disorders.
“The concerns Mrs. Vroom is expressing will definitely be considered in our reviews of our assessment and support services.”
In regards to the benefits for which Dalila believes she is eligible for, they disagree.
“Following Mr. Vroom’s death, an extensive review of his claim and health history was conducted. In addition, WorkSafe BC sought the expert advice of internal and external specialists.
“Mrs. Vroom was advised that she was not eligible for benefits as the evidence and advice did not support a conclusion that the PTSD, the depressive disorder, or other workplace factors caused his death.”
Furthermore, they said the case is still open to independent review and appeal, and added that expedited processes can be requested.
Dalila said she will not be happy until this issue is sorted out.
“After five years of battling WorkSafe, my son and I need peace in our lives,” she said.