Disaster Work: Getting Stronger and Better

THRIVEnet Story of the Month - February 1997

Cam Pierce is an American Red Cross Mass Care Specialist. During a recent exchange of e-mail letters I asked her how she handles the pressures of disaster relief work. Her comments are reproduced here with her permission:

The job of an ARC Mass Care Specialist requires heavy responsibility and has high stress that can last for weeks. I truly appreciate the job and its challenges. I personally believe that business and human compassion can work together. Some prefer an office in a remote area of the shelter to do essential paperwork. Personally, I like to work in the same area as the shelterees. Occasionally, one will volunteer to do some desk work. I believe that action helps lower stress and emotional pressure in both parties. I've celebrated my birthday and several holidays with those who were being sheltered. I'll never forget the special need for love and friendship they taught me.

Assignments on disaster operations are stressful and it is important to clear the air and to get on with the task of meeting the needs of the disaster victim. Specific ways of presenting one's concerns:

  • State your intentions and expectations.
  • Explore the possible alternatives that would be in the self-interest of both of you.
  • Agree on the best solution.
  • Help the worker or colleague to express his or her feelings.

The important phrase here is, "State your intentions and expectations." I believe this can be done in a calm, supportive, yet leadership (not authoritarian) manner.

People frequently tend to regard conflict as something to be avoided. They may try to suppress anger and leave (the situation) unfinished. Assignments on disaster operations are stressful and it is important to clear the air and to get on with the task of meeting the needs of the disaster victims.

Many of my ARC Disaster Services classes cover how to recognize and deal with stress. Suggestions include:

  • SHARE YOUR STRESS
  • KNOW YOUR LIMITS
  • TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
  • MAKE TIME FOR FUN
  • CREATE A QUIET SCENE

For me, each of these suggestions is very important. On several disaster related situations, I was able to have a good working relationship with head disaster nurses and mental health workers. When on assignment, I require that a nurse (or nurses) be on-call or in the shelters 24 hours a day for victims and workers. They would inform me about a current shelter/victim crises and in turn, I would discuss my psychological health with them. The ability to share stress does not begin and end with shelter managers. My job as a Mass Care Specialist can be even more stressful because of my extended responsibility for a variety of shelter/food service needs and requirements. By taking effective care of my bodily concerns I am constantly aware of my personal/physical needs.

One of the most important self-care things I can do is retain my ability to laugh and exercise my sense of humor in the shadow of personal, material, property and financial tragedy and destruction! I vividly remember my ARC assignment in Kauai a few years back. When taken to ARC Headquarters for further assignment, I was shocked to see mutilated bodies on the road, devastated housing foundations, homeowners crying for help, others pleading for food, clothing and financial assistance. Certainly, a part of me was moved to shed tears at such devastation. My compassionate side wanted to reach out and give them a comforting smile and hug. Experiencing personal emotions is vital. Attending to more technical, rational errands such as opening shelters, establishing ample food services and participating in emergency ARC meetings is, of course, necessary. Besides, it is an effective way of truly helping others and nourishing ourselves. However, this can be somewhat ironic after experiencing, first hand, such personal and emotional devastation. Perhaps, humor is used to help relieve one's stress on the job. I know that my ability to laugh in the face of agonizing, personal disaster is the best medical prescription on the market today!

Once I have established personal limits, self-care, and humorous interactions in the face of depressing encounters, I make every effort to find my own, personal hiding area or quiet scene. I experience deep relaxation, meditate, pray, and rejuvenate myself in preparation for the next task. If I am managing a group of shelter /mass care workers, I require them to take this "recess". Sometimes, workers will argue that they don't have time or personal need for such "trivial things"!

While on assignment during the St. Louis Floods, I was given a 2-day rest after working 21 days straight at headquarters. I admit, it was difficult, at first, to take time off. Even going to the local shopping center, I convinced myself that it could be a waste of time and money to by a present for myself. Well, after buying a new pair of shoes and getting a professional hairstyle, I felt better and should pat myself on the back for doing a good job with the American Red Cross National/Local Disaster Program.

I can especially relate to a portion of your book, The Survivor Personality which discusses psychologically healthy people. "People who thrive follow a similar pattern of actions and reactions after being knocked off track by disruptive change. They:

  • regain emotional balance;
  • cope during the transition;
  • adapt to the new reality;
  • recover to a stable condition; and
  • thrive by learning to be better and stronger than before." (p. 113)

Each time I go on a Red Cross assignment, I get a little bit stronger in body, mind and spirit. I know strategies such as establishing an emotional balance, can help me cope, effectively, with my essential medical needs. Recovering and making the necessary personal transition from such a stressful event can certainly cause emotional and physically disruption. I've been known to take a long personal recovery or debriefing period which involves quiet time, meditation, prayer, activity, journal writing and group/"one-on-one" personal therapy. If I had the money and opportunity I would take a ten day retreat.

The magnitude of my inner, personal strength is amazing! I believe I will practice this particular survival tactic for the rest of my life.

Cam Pierce can be contacted at: scholar@cruzio.com

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