By Linda Walsh-Garrison
It was just a Monday morning for most of us. Stretch to quiet the screeching alarm. Begin the week with coffee, a shower, and a commute to our daily lives. But on Oct. 2, 2017, the radio announcer reported that this morning was different for 59 people at a Las Vegas concert. They would not wake up; hundreds were injured; and thousands lost their sense of security — changed forever in an instant. While my coffeemaker gurgled, I tried to comprehend the news as a vision of confusion, fear, stampeding, blood, and shock ran through my head. Immediately, my heart felt heavy because I couldn’t imagine this unimaginable experience. And while my mind drifted through its visions, the phone rang. “Good morning,” I said, “this is Linda, Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care.”
On that morning, 14 more Disaster Spiritual Care responders prepared to join me. No one who witnesses a disaster is untouched by it. We follow in the footsteps of legions before us who serve in extreme circumstances. Events that change lives and alter the course of normal also spontaneously change the anatomy — the adrenalin and shock alter neurological responses and mental capacities. That initial gasp tightens the diaphragm and deprives the brain of oxygen. Trust is swept away by an incomprehensible truth, and time is needed to process and assess the damage. But this burden need not be carried alone.
Victims of any disaster (fire, flood, terrorist, medical, car accident, etc.) often describe the first 72 hours as a dream of disbelief. These moments are driven by autopilot for survival until a point of safety is reached. As chaplains, we have heard the audible exhale as the prelude to process and assessment. Two questions need to be answered: “What just happened?” and “How am I going to cope?” This is when the trained spiritual care team becomes engaged to validate the personal experience, help to decipher it, and provide a safe space for the exploration of next steps. Obviously, there are no answers, but decisions need to be confidently made. These moments offer the opportunity for a victim to become a survivor.
Having experienced the immediate process of trauma recovery, I am a firm believer in the spiritual process and choose to be a responder. My own deep inhale when the phone rings is my unsettled prelude to the information from the voice on the other end. Hearing the awful details, I feel my muscles tighten as my own thoughts stir with questions: “How could this happen?” “Who could do such a thing?” “What could these people be feeling?” “How many are peripherally affected?” and finally, “How do we reach out?” This is when the clock starts.
I’ve heard first responders compared to terrier dogs — always ready and waiting for the chase. In quiet times, we are restless, and then we leap when called. This is often what it feels like to me. Once I agree to travel to an event, the “hurry up and wait” period begins. Adrenalin is rushing in the first few hours where communication and preparation are often complicated: spouses, families, jobs, and pet-sitters all must agree to be rearranged to accommodate the two-week deployment. I have learned to pick my events carefully, as my spouse stresses when I am in unstable disaster territories. Once, after a major tornado alley event, our responders saw an unexpected tornado that flipped the roof over their heads and raised the stress levels back home. These considerations are real, and the American Red Cross takes our safety seriously.
Next, we wait for the orders to arrive. It could be four hours or 48. This uncertain period requires patient flexibility, and I have found it a good time to review my notes and manuals from past deployments. I will call colleagues for general counsel and spend time centering in my own belief system. Self-care is the most valued tool on any deployment — knowing our strengths, endurance, and values lessens our vulnerability. We need to care for ourselves, as well as each other, and do so on collaborative teams sharing hard work and long hours in very chaotic surroundings. The organized, familiar workplaces at home are unknown at a disaster response. Packing tools to keep you grounded is imperative. For some this is a journal, music, knitting, or phone games; for me, it’s morning meditation and coffee.
Because each event is unique, the most relevant tool is an open mind, as we cannot predict our environment or our duties. In a perfect world, we would be stationed at the family assistance center, or in shelters, or memorials, but this is not promised. We often are handing out water, assisting staff processes, idling for clearance, searching out locations, and hosting courses. Some of us will be in planning and never see a victim; instead, we might be consulting with local faith and business leaders to help them prepare for the repercussions of a large traumatic event. While our presence is felt everywhere, our placement is less defined, but we always are providing support somewhere, sometimes in surprising ways.
The true deployment begins when the orders arrive with a flight time. Now, as my stomach tightens, I will make all the confirmation calls to my office, sitters and house support. Next, a last re-check of my backpack for earplugs, badges, the mission card, clothing and comfortable shoes. Lastly, I will say goodbye to my loved ones with a lingering hug. Those last hugs are what will sustain me as I willingly dive into the deep pool of devastation. And they will be the beacons for my return home — changed forever, grateful, awaiting the next call.
Linda Walsh-Garrison, BCC, is the southwest and Rocky Mountain division advisor for Red Cross Spiritual Care.