By Logan Rutherford
In addition to caring for victims and rescue workers at a disaster, chaplains must also be able to take care of their own teams and themselves as they absorb countless stories of tragedy. I feel like a large porous sponge soaking up the extreme pain from the families I met with. I needed to wring myself out from time to time. Rabbi Steven Roberts’ quote from Disaster Wisdom Sayings could not have been more accurate for me: “Everyone responding to a disaster needs to practice self-care and seek the support of others so they leave the disaster experienced changed not damaged.”
Once, I knew that a fellow team member was about to over-function and over-identify with a family. The next appointment we had on our schedule was a family who had lost a 17 year old, and the EMT of our group had previously lost a child as well. She said, “Oh, I will be able to help this lady. I know exactly what she’s going through.” I knew it was a time to educate her on effective support for the family, while at the same time giving her an opportunity to share the story of her child that died. Subsequently, she was able to function very effectively during the family meeting.
A peer at the Joplin operation commented, “Large disaster responses like this feel like loosely organized riots.” I concurred. I like everything to fit nicely into a word table and to have things very orderly, but I had to let this go and just roll with the program, despite obvious flaws and not having all the facts and supplies I wanted. NACC chaplain Tim Serban, a regional lead for American Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care, illuminated something very important for me on my first deployment. He said, “Hey, you’re from a Level 1 trauma center; you need to realize that everything is not as fast-paced and organized. There are going to be times when you feel like you are just sitting for a bit and not being fully utilized. Be OK with that. Disaster work is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. The needs will continue in the area long after you leave.” How true this was.
Some of the most valuable support I received came electronically. I received texts from time to time from some of my nurses in Shock-Trauma offering words of encouragement and support. They will never know how much this meant to me. Most texts were simple and came with the frequent instruction – “I know how busy you are, I don’t need you to respond, just know I am thinking of you, and love you.” Maintaining connection with others back home in chaplaincy is paramount.
Since the majority of the day was hearing and absorbing other people’s experiences; attending procedural meetings; and other responsibilities my form of self-care involved just getting away with my iPod and journaling for a short time. Because there were approximately 100 Red Cross volunteers staying in the shelter where I was, I took a stroll outside or found a quiet space to sit alone.
Re-entry back into my normal life at home took some adjustment. While journaling was my savior on operations, it took me about two weeks to reflect on the accounts of pain and suffering. Upon immediate return, many people wanted stories and pictures. As a self-preservation method, I had to respond with, “I’m not quite ready for that yet.”
While it is emotionally challenging and painful work, I feel it a privilege to accompany those whose lives have been turned upside down from the effects of a disaster. I learn from everyone I meet on deployments about the resiliency in the face of such adversity. It’s not unlike what I experience every day as a trauma chaplain. I’m proud to work alongside others who offer care compassion and hope to others in some of the darkest days of their lives.
Working in trauma and seeing first-hand the result of horrendous abuse and pain inflicted by people on one another has also had a profound impact on my own spirituality. I have become more comfortable living in a world that holds in tension good and evil. I now can embrace a world of grayness, and world of ambiguity, in which I no longer feel the need to make sense of everything I encounter. In most traumatic situations, especially man-made ones, such as Sandy Hook (another event where Disaster Spiritual Care was deployed), people will continue to struggle to try to make sense of it. It is through this desperation you encounter meaningless and unhelpful platitudes such as, “God will not give you more than you can handle.” These platitudes will always continue to disappoint those in pain.
Logan Rutherford, BCC, is adult trauma chaplain at the Texas Trauma Institute at Memorial Hermann Hospital in the Texas Medical Center.