Notes from a Red Cross Volunteer

The Southern California Earthquake...

by Janan Broadbent, Ph.D.

It has been one month since I got back from an assignment as a Red Cross Volunteer for Disaster Mental Health Services. Since so many people have asked me what it was like, and in the hopes of encouraging others to get involved, I thought I would share my thoughts, feelings, and memories of the experience.

I boarded a plane for Los Angeles during one of Maryland's ice/snow storms. It was quite late when I arrived in LA so I went directly to the hotel. Early the next morning the Red Cross shuttle came to the hotel to take the volunteers to Red Cross headquarters. While waiting for the shuttle in the hotel lobby, there was an immediate camaraderie between the people wearing the familiar Red Cross jacket, or ID. Upon arriving at the Granada Building we were "processed," meaning we went through our hotel and transportation arrangements and then had a general orientation. After "processing" I went to the Mental Health office. There I was given another orientation, and was assigned to Service Center #17 in Van Nuys. I must admit to having had quite a bit of anxiety and apprehension as I was dropped off at the Center (a huge yellow and white tent). A lot of people and much activity greeted me as I entered, and those skills one acquires in dealing with the confusion and chaos in dysfunctional families certainly came in handy for me as I tried to feel centered and in control. In retrospect I think that I was quite lucky in arriving a day after another psychologist, David Baldwin from Eugene, Oregon began his "tour of duty." He and I had immediate rapport and his presence was very reassuring; we worked well together.

The resources and the organization of the Red Cross are absolutely amazing. They supplied us with lists of local therapists, clinics, translators, hospitals, and hotlines. There were booklets, handouts, toys, games, and food that we could distribute to help with the emotional needs of the earthquake victims and workers. The work I did was mostly crisis intervention, outside referrals, brief psychological evaluation, "fast" intervention to shortcircuit confrontations, and a lot of plain human empathetic contact. Carl Rogers came to mind many times, and not because I was in California.

I was told by many of the workers who were veterans that each disaster is different in terms of how they experience it. I do believe that the way the center is administered has a great effect on everyone. On my first day, there was a transition in management; a new manager came in the next morning. A personal surprise for me: Aaron Smith (the manager) knew Baltimore was "Bawlmer!!" His support of mental health services was very important in getting through the long days. He helped defray the uncertainty I sometimes felt as to which Red Cross procedure to follow or what number form to use. The Red Cross has its own "lingo" that one must learn.

To survive in a post-disaster atmosphere without burnout, one has to feel comfortable with ambiguity, unpredictability, and taking care of oneself while taking care of everyone else. I think it is absolutely essential that each worker take a day off every seven days. The stress of the situation and always running on adrenaline all the time take their toll pretty quickly. I found myself needing very little sleep, eating junk food the first few days, and then losing my appetite and requiring little food. My sense of time was affected, and irritability set in fast when I entered the non-disaster "real" world. When you see people who lost everything, when you see children who are so traumatized they cannot even hold a teddy bear, when just holding someone's hand brings them to tears and they thank you profusely, one's perspective on life and material things changes quickly. Bonding is an immediate process that cushions the atmosphere especially between the workers.

As David, Winsconsin psychiatric nurse Florence Bonney, and I settled into a good pace (from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00, 8:00, or even 9:00 p.m. each day), the stability we established got a jolt: Service Center # 17 was merging with #15. It honestly felt like losing my identity: Who were the new people? Where was the new place? Why did I have to move?!!! It helped that David also made the move, but Florence's time was up, so she left, and Aaron went on to manage another center. As I had only two more days to go, I found myself running out of emotional energy and not wanting to reestablish new ties, work with a new manager, and get used to a new order. However, the neediness of the victims was the same. One of my learnings is to be ready for that kind of sudden move and to better pace myself next time.

I have brought back a lot of very intense memories, images I will never forget, and emotional connections that have made deep impact. As psychologists, we like to help people, and therefore qualify to do this type of work. However, I think that the need for an intense experience and a tolerance for chaos, lack of structure, and unpredictability must be pretty strong if one wants to help disaster victims. I was told that in one center there were two psychologists who wore suits and ties and sat behind a desk waiting for people to come to them. This definitely will NOT do! The order of the day was jeans and sweatshirts, being empathetic, approachable, and able to approach people in need.

I want to mention that much credit is due to four other psychologists who preceded me: Steve Curran, Steve Levin, and Suzanne and Russ Hibler. Also, the emotional support from the Central Maryland Chapter as I prepared to leave, specifically, Annette Mooney, Steve Knox, and Mike Ritter, was invaluable. Fmally, I would like to encourage any psychologist who is interested to take the training offered by the Red Cross. Neil Kirchner is the liaison from MPA and the MPA office could direct anyone to related information.

The Maryland Psychologist
March/April 1994: Issue 4, V.39 , p. 11