Bringing Emotional First Aid and Hope to Haiti

Dr. Judy Kuriansky, an expert in post-disaster comfort care, shares insights of hope from her “emotional first aid” mission in Haiti.

BY: Judy Kuriansky, Ph.D


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The Blessing of Helping Others

Hope was evident in the fact that people who are in pain themselves want to help others. And in doing so, they help themselves. At the hospital where we brought medical supplies, L'Hôpital de la Communauté Haïtienne, we were greeted, to our surprise, by a group of 35 Haitian psychology students – gathered by the social worker, Jean Yves Valcourt. Just the day before he had mentioned his plan to send a message to a few students to come learn support skills and to spread the word to other students they could contact. I marveled at the large group of young people who came so willingly to help, assembled within so few hours. I set about training the students to use tools and techniques for dealing with their own and others' trauma, relevant for their culture. Since most spoke only French, I used my fractured French learned in high school and college classes, with help from Father Wismick, who provided messages in Creole, embellishing the lessons and adding prayers. The group was all eager to learn and to apply their new skills to care for those suffering. Despite my fears that seeing the extent of the wounds and pain of the patients, they would not want to return, all 35 of them signed up for shifts to return, even some committing to daily service. As a psychologist, I know how important it is to make a sincere commitment. Since I’ve been back in New York, it has been exceptionally rewarding to get phone calls from the hospital social worker that the youth helpers continue to keep their schedule. There is hope.

Caregivers Find Comfort in Asking for Strength

Another message of hope emerged from the debriefing after the youth training. Modeling the self-care lesson we were taught in our training as Red Cross volunteers after 9/11, I asked all the Haitian volunteers to go around in a circle and share something they plan to do for themselves that would represent “being good to yourself.” When I had participated in these debriefing circles in New York for our 9/11 relief work, I would occasionally echo my mother’s favorite self-treat, that of taking a hot bath. Other New York volunteers answered that they would go to the movies, eat pizza, or pet their cat. There were hardly pizzas and movies in Haiti after the earthquake, nor could they treat themselves with anything that would cost money. I needed to give them an example, so I came up with a non-material one: “I’d ask for a hug from my friend.” Motioning for Father Wismick to please give me a hug, he obliged, and that got them started. Most echoed one another, but the main response was, “Je veux devenir plus fort pour aider plus les autres” (“I want become stronger to be able to help others more”). At first we tried to get them to pick something else that would more clearly be for themselves, since they were already doing so much for others. But when they persisted with that answer, I realized the depth of their idea. To these youth, asking for strength to help others was as legitimate or comforting as treating themselves to pizza or a movie. I was moved and massively impressed by their intention to be empowered to serve. As we continued around the circle, hearing more wishes for strength and courage to help others more, I asked the group to encircle each other with that strength and courage. Some lifted their arms in a universal sign of victory. The group laughed in a spirit of togetherness and hope. It struck me that these young comforters instinctively embodied the psychological principle that has been proven by research about volunteering and providing aide: in helping others, you are helped yourself.

All in all, the experiences were a powerful embodiment of the Haitian saying, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.”



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