Getting Back

Getting Back

Pascale Vermont Evers, PhD, CT

Winter 2011 - Volume 15 Number 1

Whenever I mention to someone that I have spent two weeks in Haiti as a mental health worker, I am invariably asked: "Wasn’t it so hard to be there?" Each time I almost feel guilty admitting that the experience was a myriad of things: I felt humbled, challenged every second, fully alive, open to people’s pain, but never depressed or overwhelmed. 

As a clinical psychologist with a specialty in death and dying and critical incident stress management, my job, along with Kaiser Permanente Psychiatrist Mason Turner, was to debrief 230 members of the staff of Nos Petits Frères et Soeurs St Damien Pediatric Hospital of their personal experiences of the quake, to train them to identify signs of trauma among colleagues, parents, and children, and to teach them simple psychological interventions ("psychological first aid").

Being a native French speaker, I led the debriefing groups, and was struck again and again by people’s openness, readiness to talk about painful losses to complete strangers, conviction that if they had been allowed to survive the earthquake it was their duty to help their community, deep faith that God would ultimately take care of them and give them the strength to carry on, support of each other and their families in spite of having no shelter and getting little sleep and nourishment, pride in their appearance shown by their coming to work impeccably dressed while living on the streets, and inspiring courage. Of the 230 people we met with, only two were still able to live in their homes, some had lost up to ten members of their family, many had not been able to bury their loved ones, some university students had lost their school and professors and their dreams of becoming physicians, many had recurring nightmares, symptoms of severe anxiety and fear about their own and their children’s future. However, I never heard one person complain or give up, a lesson to me and to all of us.

I met with several staff who had been particularly traumatized and followed some of their healing process through communications with the hospital Director, Phadoul Amisial, who reports that some of them "have improved a lot." All along our goal had been to teach the staff to take over after our departure, and I was very gratified to hear recently that they no longer feel the need for volunteers and that they believe it is "healthier psychologically" to take care of each other and to find a "new post-quake normal."

I went to Haiti in many ways to give back to a community that had suffered such tremendous losses and ended up getting back so very much—a belief in human resiliency, the witnessing of incredible courage in the face of pain, a strong bonding among colleagues, and a deep spiritual life to support it all—and feeling so grateful to the people I met for their warmth and openness of heart.

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