Major Incidents, Patient Care

Mentally Surviving a Hurricane

There’s one belief I hold to be true: It’s always reassuring to set out on a mission, and then achieve that mission.

As a member of  Israel Rescue Coalition’s (IRC) mission which sent members of United Hatzalah’s (UH) Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit to Houston last week, I think that’s what happened with us.  

Our Mission

Looking at the pictures from the trip might give someone the mistaken impression that we were there just to listen to people tell their stories and to give the hugs afterward. We certainly did a fair amount of that, but any caring person can do that.

Our job was to help people process their traumatic experiences and dislodge them from the shock that they felt so that they could plan their next steps, figure out how best to care for themselves and their families and feel empowered with the little they had left.

Our unit has been trained to search for the resilience in each individual, and highlight it for them. The hugs and gratitude we received from the survivors were a response to feeling better and calmer when the intervention was over. We’re trained to make these interventions in a brief and directed way so that we can help as many people as possible in a short time.

We didn’t have the luxury of holding long, drawn-out therapy sessions, but we were equipped by the IRC and UH with more than just a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder and a smile. We had tools to use in the field.

One of the things we are taught is to determine the immediate needs of the survivor, and that’s what we were constantly doing in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

IRC and United Hatzalah team member Miriam Ballin, MFT, EMT-B, prepping to give out aid to evacuees in transit at Jack Brooks Regional Airport.

 

 IRC and United Hatzalah team leader Miriam Ballin, EMT-B, treats military first responder at Jack Brooks Regional Airport.

Inspired by – and Inspiring – Complete Strangers

It was smart for us to wear matching T-shirts with Israel Rescue Coalition printed on them, because people immediately understood that we were coming to Houston to help. Complete strangers stopped to talk to us, get treated by us and later thanked us for our help.

In the airport in Tel Aviv, a man approached us to ask if we were going to Houston. When he found out that we were, he brought us into the VIP lounge as his guests. Given the last-minute decision to fly, the airlines were not able to provide us with kosher food, but the King David lounge provided us with a meal before boarding, and that meal carried us through to Dallas.

At the displaced person center in Beaumont, it was quite common for people to cry and embrace us when they found out that we’d come from Israel. Just the message itself–that people in a far away foreign country cared enough to hop on a plane and come to help them was dramatically therapeutic.

We were inspired by and inspired many of the people we met and the stories we heard.

The IRC and  United Hatzalah team help evacuees by providing them, with water, food stuff, and someone to talk to.

Tyrese

One story involved a 17-year-old boy named Tyrese. On Saturday, we were stationed in the Beaumont airport, which was taking in evacuees. I had used the day to seek out people who were waiting to board the buses in order to talk to them and treat them before they made the next leg of their journey to a long-term shelter. While we were there, I met Tyrese’s grandmother.

Tyrese was from Port Arthur, and his grandmother mentioned to me in passing that he had been having a hard time, more so than his two brothers. I asked permission to have a private conversation with him and then invited him to walk with me, away from the noise and the people.

He told me his story. He’d woken up at 7 a.m. to the sound of his mother yelling. He rolled over in bed and his hand slapped the water. He ran to get his 8-year-old sister out of bed and took charge of evacuating his family while throwing a few necessities into a bag.

Once he got them over to a dry area, he went back to help his neighbors pull a wheelchair-bound neighbor out of her apartment.

Once she was safe, he went back into the water for the third time, all this in the driving rain. He heard a woman scream that there was a body floating in the water. He didn’t see the body, but he did see an eye floating by, and was convinced that it was a human eye. At that point, he ran back to his family and didn’t return to the water.

Ever since, he had been having intrusive flashbacks of that memory. He shared with me that he hadn’t slept in three days, and couldn’t concentrate on anything. He was worried that he’d never be normal again.

I explained to him that this was a normal reaction to an abnormal experience and that his brain was trying to process these very difficult memories. I helped him to anticipate what he would feel over the next week and month. Together we practiced some techniques for coping with the thoughts. He was much more relaxed after our conversation, and very grateful.

Dr. Staub and Dr. Slater helping a first responder.

Focusing on the Present

There were dozens of similar examples that occurred each day. We touched many lives in a real and I believe lasting way. Our team helped people focus their energies on the present so that they could feel strong enough to negotiate the coming days. At the end of these discussions, we often received hugs smiles. Sometimes these were the first smiles these people had shared in days.

In addition to helping evacuees, we also helped many pilots and paramedics that were camped out in the same location.

I spent two hours speaking to a paramedic about his most traumatic call, something which had stayed with him for almost 20 years. UH Psychotrauma Response Unit founder & director Miriam Ballin, MFT, EMT-B, and UH Trauma & Crisis Response team member Avi Tennenbaum joined me for the last hour of that conversation.

After the meeting, he wrote a letter to us extolling how much the meeting and conversation helped him deal with his trauma and how appreciative he was of our efforts.  

Some of the conversations we had with them were particularly compelling to me–for the simple reason that these are not the fragile evacuees, but the strong, brawny saviors who by all appearances are coping well.

However, as one paramedic told me, “Every one of us has our little PTSD experience tucked deep away.” I found that to be true for me as well.