Here’s an article that was sent in by our newest provider, Michele Duncan King, on first responders utilizing yoga to combat stress. Not only will it help with that, it will also add flexibility to the strength we have, which on the fire/accident scene, may be handy.
Last week, after the bombing at the Boston Marathon, we lost a 10-year-old girl (to what turned out to be natural causes) here on Whidbey Island. An islander in his twenties stabbed a friend, and then in West, Texas, a fertilizer plant blew up. The second explosion killed four volunteer firefighters who were already on scene after the first explosion. The community of West lost four responders, ten civilians, three of its five firetrucks, the fertilizer plant (and the jobs that went with it), several homes, and an apartment complex. Two hundred others were injured.
It could have been worse. They all could have. But they were bad enough.
At Whidbey CareNet, my partner and I have been researching and poring over materials on stress and trauma for several weeks, developing a presentation and tools to equip emergency responders to relieve stress, and then last week it started to manifest itself in me.
It came to a head when I had a dream in which I yelled angrily at my partner, “Don’t talk to me about stress until you’ve held a dead body in your arms!” I was losing ground to the stress, which creeps up insidiously. It doesn’t knock loudly, at least not for me.
So this week, I will make some appointments with Whidbey CareNet providers to deal with even deeper issues of stress and trauma in my own life. And I’m going to listen to music–a little jazz in fact. (Thank you Molly Cook!)
Last week was about the human condition. In Boston, where others ran away from explosions, emergency responders ran toward them. In Texas, responders did the same thing and died because of it. Here on Whidbey Island, we responded to two calls; one tragic, the other violent.
It takes courage to get up, keep doing this, and keep my heart open and empathetic. It takes courage to call a practitioner and say, “I need help.”
Today, I encourage you to remain vulnerable, be grateful, move your body, breathe the air outside. Feel the sunshine on your face. By all means, cry if you want to. I have. As Forrest Gump’s mother said, “Oh Forrest, death is just a part of life.” Feel it, process it, listen to your emotions, and see where we disconnect from mercy, compassion, and justice.
We saw the uglier side of the human condition this last week. Let’s manifest some of the more positive side this week.
When Zippy died on Christmas Day in 2011, Rob put his head on the chief’s car and wept, right there on the scene. He’d been a volunteer firefighter for 15 years and witnessed a great deal of physical and emotional pain. But Zippy’s death broke him. He knew her. Knew her family. Put a bandage on her knee after a Soupbox Derby accident one year. This was personal.
Rob wasn’t the only one who was shaken by the accident. In a small community like ours, chances are high that a call you respond to will be someone you know, and calls involving the deaths of young people are always especially difficult. So after the accident that killed Zippy, the fire district called for a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing. It was the first CISD Rob had been to, and he hoped it would make him feel better. It didn’t. “Every time I opened my mouth, I started to cry,” says Rob. “No one acknowledged my tears. No one touched me. Few of the 15 or so participants spoke, and they they all sat in a circle with their arms and legs crossed.”
The CISD didn’t make Rob feel better, and it turns out that’s not unusual. In an article titled
The Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories Forever, which was published in Wired magazine, Jonah Lehrer writes:
A typical CISD session lasts about three hours and involves a trained facilitator who encourages people involved to describe the event from their perspective in as much detail as possible. Facilitators are trained to probe deeply and directly, asking questions such as, what was the worst part of the incident for you personally? The underlying assumption is that a way to ease a traumatic memory is to express it.
The problem is, CISD rarely helps—and recent studies show it often makes things worse. In one, burn victims were randomly assigned to receive either CISD or no treatment at all. A year later, those who went through a debriefing were more anxious and depressed and nearly three times as likely to suffer from PTSD. Another trial showed CISD was ineffective at preventing post-traumatic stress in victims of violent crime, and a US Army study of 952 Kosovo peacekeepers found that debriefing did not hasten recovery and led to more alcohol abuse. Psychologists have begun to recommend that the practice be discontinued for disaster survivors.
If the CISD Rob attended had helped him, Whidbey CareNet might never have been founded. Fortunately, the fact that it didn’t led 30+ healthcare providers to offer emergency responders like him free services through Whidbey CareNet. And it has inspired me to seek and provide an alternative to CISD.
CISD is a cognitive, left-brained approach that relies on participants to recall a traumatic event and put their experience into words. Unfortunately, our left brain is largely offline when we experience trauma. It’s our right brain that experiences and records traumatic events while our entire body experiences a surge of “survival energy” that prepares us to to defend ourselves or flee from danger. If that energy isn’t physically released, it causes a sort of short circuit in the brain that can lead to conditions such as PTSD.
In his foreword to Peter Levine’s book, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, Gabor Maté writes, “Trauma, as Peter brilliantly recognized decades ago, does not reside in the external event that induces physical or emotional pain–nor even in the pain itself–but in our becoming stuck in our primitive response to painful events. Trauma is caused when we are unable to release blocked energies, to fully move through the physical/emotional reactions to hurtful experience.”
I am so glad to be learning somatic (of or relating to the body) approaches to healing trauma. I’m excited to share what I learn with you via this blog, and ultimately, with emergency responders via workshops.
Stay tuned . . .
Here is a video that an organization named Six Seconds uses as a tool to develop emotional intelligence, which makes “a transformational difference” in all walks of life. The cards Six Seconds CEO Joshua Freedman is using were designed by Whidbey CareNet founder Petra Martin. We gave a lot of these card decks to firefighters and EMTs, and if you’re an emergency responder in the districts we serve, and haven’t received your copy, we have one for you. Contact us here.
Update: Since the Newtown killings in December, over two thousand people have been killed across America, and the number rises daily. Emergency repsonders have gone to every one of these calls. They are the first to witness the carnage, and sometimes, save the family and friends the trauma of seeing it themselves. Whidbey CareNet exists because of the trauma and stress that emergency responders experience. We have a solution, and we want to share it.
For Immediate Release
How Whidbey Island Cares for Its Emergency Responders
The world’s eyes are on Newtown, Connecticut, this week as the families of those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School lay their loved ones to rest. As painful as their experience has been, there’s one thing they didn’t do: witness the carnage. It was emergency responders who did that. They went from one victim to another, hoping to save lives, but covered little bodies with blankets instead, put them on gurneys, transported them to aid vehicles, and had trouble falling asleep that night. More than 20 percent of them will develop PTSD, and approximately 40 percent of them will self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.
Last year, within a six-week period, the close-knit community of South Whidbey Island lost four young people in car accidents. Mick Poynter (20), Mack Porter (19), and Rob Knight (22) died in the same accident on November 12, and nine-year-old Zippy Leonard died on Christmas Day. The community rallied around the families of the victims. But when Rob Harrison, an EMT who responded to the accident that killed Zippy burst into tears at the South Whidbey Commons, Petra Martin wondered, “Who’s taking care of the emergency responders?”
Martin had created a tool that helps people put their feelings into words, but she didn’t consider herself qualified to provide the care she thought responders needed. So she created a website called whidbeycarenet.org and asked a number of caregivers if they were willing to provide free care for emergency responders. Her request went viral, and today, more than 30 providers offer everything from free counseling and massage therapy to free naturopathic and chiropractic care. “I was appalled when I realized that we’d neglected our emergency responders—most of whom are volunteers,” Martin says. “Caregivers felt the same way. They continue to thank me for giving them an opportunity to serve the men and women who care for us on the worst days of our lives.”
Whidbey CareNet serves both professional and volunteer responders. Professionals risk losing their jobs if they admit to seeking treatment for conditions such as PTSD, so confidentiality is critical. The organization encourages emergency responders to contact providers directly and asks providers not to reveal responder identities to Whidbey CareNet.
“Whidbey CareNet providers have helped me get through one of the most difficult years of my life,” says Harrison, who now co-directs the organization. “I have a de-stressing tool kit that I can—and do—use any time. When triggering events like Newtown happen, especially so close to the anniversary of Zippy’s death and my own emotional awakening, I know I have resources. I wish all emergency responders were as fortunate as I am.”
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Whidbey CareNet is a nonprofit organization that was incorporated in Washington State on February 15, 2011.
Petra Martin, founder & director of provider services
Rob Harrison, firefighter/EMT & director of responder services
Charlene Ray, LICSW, counselor, Whidbey CareNet provider, and school-based mental health coordinator and supervisor for Island County
Last year on Christmas Day, a 9-year-old died here on Whidbey Island under the most unusual circumstances. As her family traveled on a road they’d traveled many times before, Death reached into their car, snatched the youngest child from the back seat, and left her family and her community reeling.
Rob was on duty that day. Witnessing the death of a child he knew and experiencing first-hand its impact on her family broke him wide open. He put his head on the hood of the chief’s car and wept right there on the scene.
In the year since Zippy’s death opened Rob’s heart, he has remained open and vulnerable—through the end of a 20-year career as a carpenter, unemployment, the end of a 35-year marriage, moving out of the home he’d shared with his family, becoming a full-time college student, and being diagnosed with what his doctor called “as close to cancer as you can get without actually calling it cancer.” Rob allowed himself to feel it all and I (Petra) have never seen a man cry as often as I’ve seen him cry over the past year.
As a Whidbey CareNet provider, you’ve volunteered to help emergency responders like Rob, and no one has benefitted more from your care than he has this past year. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the way you have carried him through this time.
As we approach another Christmas, we are all impacted by the senseless deaths of more children—this time on the other side of the country. I am struck by how many recent photos of Newtown, Connecticut, I’ve seen with emergency responders in the background. And I find myself wishing they had a CareNet that offers them support in the same way that you support our emergency responders here on Whidbey Island.
Fred Rogers once said, “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in the world.”
What we know now, a year after Zippy’s death, is that it was not senseless. Beautiful things came of it, including Whidbey CareNet. Based on our experience, we know that, somehow, good will come from the deaths of the children who died in Newtown last week.
As we approach the first anniversary of Zippy’s death and the first anniversary of Whidbey CareNet’s birth, we thank you for being a helper.