Hauntingly realistic artwork of what goes on inside the back of an ambulance and the internal struggle of a paramedic with ethereal figures in the background. Portraits of first responders who have died - including an Airdrie paramedic beloved by many - Mike Hart. This is how an Alberta paramedic has found healing; through his artwork.

Daniel Sundahl, also known as DanSun - his artistic moniker, a former paramedic and firefighter began his foray into his artwork when in 2014 he began to recognize signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in himself. 

"Creating the artwork was part of my therapy. That's how I purged these thoughts and emotions that were in my mind and trapped them in these two-dimensional images," Sundahl said. "It was actually the idea of my therapist at the time - he knew that I was interested in photography, and I was doing landscape photography and pictures of my dogs."

While his intention was never to share his artwork with the public, the way it resonated with other first responders across the globe became a phenomenon in the first responder community. Sundahl, recalls one of the very first pieces of artwork he created.

"It shows a paramedic, and he's very distraught. He's got gloved hands on his head. There's a ghost and there's a dead body on the stretcher. [I thought] other paramedics and firefighters are goING look at this and think I'm totally weird. When I did [share it], I realized that so many others were going through the same thing I was. They could relate to my artwork by attaching their own experiences to it."

Sundahl said that while many populations experience trauma, there may be something unique when it comes to how first responders not only experience trauma but how they cope with it. He said that because first responders are often lionized as heroes and seen as reliable, strong individuals in their communities, admitting that the very work that they do to protect the public is damaging their psyche is difficult to admit. 

"I think I'm alone, because I can see everyone else doing their job and they're fine, and they're not showing any signs, because no one talks about it," he said. "But when I shared the images, I realized that that wasn't the case at all."

Perhaps this is most evident when he travels across the globe, visiting paramedics, firefighters, and police in different countries. Sundahl said that when he is introduced as DanSun the artist - there is little to no flash of recognition in the faces of his fellow first responders. However, when it is revealed that he is, in fact, a former firefighter and paramedic himself, there is an instant connection and bond that transcends countries and languages. 

His unique style combines both digital photography and digital art - a surprise to some photography aficionados who assume that he uses HDR photography. His art is also rife with many symbols - some of which are spiritual, and also slightly controversial.

"That gets me into a lot of trouble sometimes, especially when I travel. I use angels as a symbol of recovery, and demons as a symbol of trauma. When I'm trying to portray my trauma in artwork, I am personifying it - it's easier for me to give it an identity," Sundahl explained. "The angels are recovery; you'll see both in the artwork."

But what about the re-living those moments again for his artwork? He said it's precisely by reliving the trauma that he is healing.

"When I'm creating the artwork, I am thinking about that incident, but at the same time, I'm activating another part of my brain, which is interrupting the normal process of the trauma response."

This is something he is learning about as he is taking a two-year program to become a counselling therapist. He is aiming to graduate next year.  

Though Sundahl officially left the first responder world in 2022, there are things he does miss.

"I miss the camaraderie; I miss the crews that I worked with. I miss being in the fire hall. I miss that environment. I don't miss the calls. I think I've done my share of emergency work. I don't miss going into car accidents. I don't miss seeing dead people."

However, his artwork is only one way he is connecting with first responders about PTSD and mental health. Sundahl has travelled across North America and other parts of the globe taking part in symposiums and other speaking opportunities, discussing not only mental health trauma in first responders but how to address it.

"I believe that the biggest issue is having a psychologically healthy work environment. I think emergency workers need to be more supported in where they work and I think more energy and financing should go into what is the source of the trauma that we get; instead of assuming that it's from the calls we go on."

He used the analogy of bullets to further illustrate his point.

"Concentrate more on stopping the bullets from coming in, instead of concentrating and spending all the resources on developing a more effective bulletproof vest."

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