By D.W. Donovan
I flew in a day early for the NACC annual conference in St. Louis this year to attend the American Red Cross training program for members of the Disaster Spiritual Care team. I had attended a similar training program for two days in 2009 prior, so technically, I had the requisite training to serve in a disaster.
I say “technically” not because I don’t have faith in the teaching abilities of my old friends, Chaplains Tim Serban and Stephen Roberts, but because I had recently helped out the local and national Red Cross staff and volunteers when the Oso landslide destroyed the lovely neighborhood just 20 minutes north of my own medical center.
For those of you not as intimately involved in the story, there was a major mudslide in Oso, WA, on March 22. My hospital, Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, had recently assumed a leadership role in disasters and would serve as the coordinating center for a large part of our region. You would think that with five units of CPE, FEMA training, CISM training, and years of trauma and ICU experience, that I would feel ready.
There is no question that the training did help tremendously, and I’m grateful for every moment. But when Tim Serban asked me to spend some extended time at Oso, I think my heart skipped a beat. At the time, I recalled a line from Helmuth von Moltke: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” In this case, the enemy was the death and destruction that Mother Nature had wreaked upon the Oso community. The resulting stress and emotional trauma of the surviving victims was natural and appropriate, but the quality of our planning would determine just how effective we would be.
The first thing that I learned upon deploying to Oso was that one primary lesson of training was right on target: the initial challenges will always be “command and control” and communications – questions as simple as who will direct a particular task or function, to how the administrative space will be set up. It was an important reminder that the spiritual care lead is there partly because of his/her expertise as a pastoral professional, but also to exercise that ministry as a leader.
The good news is that the American Red Cross has officially incorporated disaster spiritual care within the overall disaster response team. This is the first major change in their response structure since mental health was incorporated a number of years ago, and it reflects the growing understanding of both the Red Cross and the country as a whole of the benefits that pastoral professionals can bring to such situations. That we have reached this point is a credit to Tim Serban, our NACC liaison to the American Red Cross and now their Spiritual Care Lead, and the countless professional chaplains who have made a substantial contribution to the work of disaster spiritual care.
The training session itself reminded us that the American Red Cross ensures that spiritual care meets their own commitment to impartiality and neutrality. They clearly state that “aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint.” In the context of such a commitment, professionally trained, board-certified chaplains become particularly important. We were also oriented to how the American Red Cross operates at a practical level. This was welcome, as I remember sitting in my first briefing in Oso wondering what language was being spoken. Like all professions, the Red Cross uses lots of shorthand expresssions and informal acronyms; to be integrated members of the team, we had to become familiar with the language. In many ways, it was no different than starting on a new unit: you want to figure out who are the key leaders and assess where the most good can be done with our particular skill set, while coordinating carefully within the overall plan of care. At the same time, Tim and Stephen shared numerous tidbits to help us think through the provision of spiritual care in such an environment. I found the list of wisdom sayings to be particularly helpful.
The afternoon session was devoted to an extended tabletop exercise, which was invaluable for helping us figure out the practicalities in such a deployment. Over and over again, we were drilled on variations of the same message: stay connected to others (collaborative) and stay flexible.
A few days after I returned home from St. Louis, I attended a fundraiser in downtown Seattle for Medical Teams International. One of our guest speakers was the mayor of the town in the Philippines that was recently hit by Hurricane Yolanda. He and his wife had been separated for just under two hours, not knowing if the other was dead or alive. The mayor’s wife had prayed Psalm 91 over and over again while they were separated. “The Lord is my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust. … He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” In the days after the hurricane, she went on, the volunteers from Medical Teams International made this psalm a reality. I know that the same was true of the Red Cross for the residents of Oso and for so many others.
I learned a lot in St. Louis, and the action-reflection model is always good for reminding you of the places where you tripped up. I’m sure that I tripped up more than a few times in my short time in Oso. But the training kicks in, and you remember that while the scope is different, the fundamentals are the same. People are hurting. And we have been honored and called to accompany them through this incredibly difficult time. I’m grateful to have played a small part in that work.
D. W. Donovan, BCC, is Vice President of Mission Integration and Spiritual Care at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, WA.