Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Disaster Recovery Realisms

For the past week, my job has been to listen to 1.5 hour-long interviews and transcribe them to use in our handbook project. I have to take breaks and do finger stretches, and I find myself hunching further and further over the keyboard, but overall, I really don’t mind it. The interviews are with very well-spoken, intelligent, and grounded professionals who have had a notable impact on the disaster recovery world. The interviews are basically my own personal TED Talks that I get to record and really digest. One of the interviews is with Lisa La Due, an instructor at Colorado State University...

------------------For the record, I don’t know how this type of stuff works. I’m sure it’s fine to say, I’m quoting her words, but let’s just keep this between us...just in case. ---------------------

Lisa is extremely articulate and educated, as well as being very emotionally in-touch with disaster survivors. In this segment I’m outlining, she is discussing her time in Thailand after the tsunami. She and 5 others went to Thailand to help with the psychological recovery process. Here is a part of that experience:

(Excuse some of the rough transcribing) 

“Lisa: Do you mind if I share a story with you? When we went to Thailand after the tsunami to work with people, it was an interesting experience, and I won’t go into too many details, but I was the only one with any kind of disaster experience out of the six of us that went. We were in one of the relocation camps where the Thai army had kind of built metal structures for people to stay in for people who had survived but kind of lost their homes. We were working with one of the princesses of Thailand and had a medical team. She was the humanitarian princess, so we were working under the offices of her team. One day, towards the end of the afternoon, two Thai Red Cross workers came walking up to us with a Thai woman in between them. We’re all human, and we all have times of judgment, and I looked up, and I thought, “oh man, this is a long-term psych patient they are bringing to us and this is not a tsunami survivor, and they just want to try and heal everything.” And so I had these thoughts, and we were getting on the bus, so we said, sorry, we can’t today, have her come back tomorrow, and we’ll see her then. 
So sure enough, the next morning, she was sitting there in a chair, already waiting for us. Almost catatonic. You know, just there, but being unable to speak, no expression at all, and when I asked if she could sense anything in her body, she couldn’t sense anything. Usually, you can ask someone if they can put their feet on the ground, nope couldn’t do that. So I got down on the ground and put my hand on her feet so that she could feel that, and we kind of just did that for a while. Again, it was to get her present, to let her feel her body. With very little conversation with the translator, I learned that the morning of the tsunami she was in her hut, with her 4 children, making breakfast, and the tsunami wave came and stirred them all around, like in a washing machine, and threw them all out the door. 
And I’ll try to say things without crying. 
She had found the bodies of two of her children, but not the other two. Essentially all I did was work with the sensations in her body, and she cried for the first time, and that was 6 weeks after the tsunami. So she cried, and then I had her say what she was feeling in her body, and you could see that she was getting more affect; she started to look alive again. And that was all of her story I know, there was nothing else to ask about the story. My point was to try and get her to release the trauma stored in her body, and really just did that by holding onto her feet for about 45 minutes, and having her feel what was happening in her own body, her own tears. At the end of about 45 minutes, she said, “I can hear the birds singing.” And I said, “that’s wonderful, notice how it feels to hear the birds singing.”  And she said, “and there’s my friend over there.” I said, “notice how good that feels.” And then she said, I couldn’t see anything before, everything was dark. I had never experienced anyone before who experienced psychogenic blindness. But she had been unable to see. I have a photo of her with a big, bright smile on her face when we finished, and it is one of the greatest gifts I think I have ever had of all time. And she said, “I think I’m ready to go back and get some fish to sell. (And this wasn’t quite realistic), but I said “that’s wonderful, well think about how that will feel to be moving again.” And she looked at me and she said, “I think I’m ready to find my other two children.” 

And all I can say is there is a spiritual dimension about working at this deep level that nothing else really touches, and there really isn’t any other way for me to explain it. It’s not like it was what I did for her; I was just there and helped her feel safe enough to experience her current life again that day.  And I think that’s the essence of the work we do.  Give them their life back, even though it’s different now.”

This was a really powerful story for me to listen to and try and type out. I found myself unable to type at times, because I was so deep into her story. I would have to rewind and start over, only to find myself still again, listening. This is amazing work to me. She helps people regain life, hope, and a sense of safety. 

I hope you share this story, because I think it’s important. Compassion is an amazing trait to teach, learn, and share, and I think this story is a great example of that. I also think her words, as well as the rest of the handbook (est. release is this Spring), will help a lot of families in the future. The handbook is designed to guide people, families, and communities through the process (sustainably), and at a time when their brain is unable to fully absorb the magnitude of the disaster outcomes. It’s a guidebook, as well as being a book of hope. There are stories from professionals, like Lisa, as well as from other disaster survivors. I will keep you updated on that development, but in the meantime, remember be compassionate, keep your feet on the ground, and stretch...even your fingers.

1 comment:

  1. Jana,
    Wow! What a life-affirming, hopeful and amazing story. Thanks for sharing. I am a certified holistic nurse and use energy work to assist people to heal. I have had amazing experiences, but this story really stands out as a unique example of the power of love,energy, touch, and just "being" with someone in their time of need. Can I share this story on my blog ( More people should know about this.