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.

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Extensive social psychological research about coping with grief and disaster identifies that after shock, the next phases bring out anger and depression, until reaching acceptance. This will undoubtedly happen as time and daily difficulties challenge the people of Haiti. But despite so many shocking sights and sounds, during my week-long mission in Haiti I also saw glimmers of hope.

Unselfish Helpers

Disasters like the Haiti quake can inspire hope through the extensive humanitarian response of individuals and the international community. At the hospital in Port-au-Prince where we set up our comfort station (L'Hôpital de la Communauté Haïtienne), I encountered doctors from all countries, including Korea, the West Indies, and Chile. They were all stressed but determined. One surgeon fought back tears as he told me there were just too many people to treat and too few supplies. He cleared his throat and recovered his composure, as an aide grabbed him to go down the road to tend to a young girl with glass protruding from her elbow. After treating her, he came back to tell me how he had never seen such devastation, but "we have to do whatever we can do." A young business student told me how she rushed to volunteer at the hospital where, despite being afraid of the sight of blood and having no medical experience, she accepted being assigned to assist in the operating room. She learned quickly how to hand over the correct instruments, because, as she put it, "Everyone does their part, even things you never dreamed you would do, in such an emergency." Such courage and humanity on the part of helpers is a source of hope in this terrible tragedy.

Haitian Boy Scouts to the Rescue

At the church where Father Wismick and I stayed, I quickly determined ways to train local people in some of the trauma survival skills I had applied in other disaster situations. These are techniques I had collated in my "Clinical Toolbox for Cross-Cultural Counseling and Training" that had just been published in a professional book for training graduate students. I had learned from so many past experiences that just having someone present, and knowing someone cares, gives a sufferer much needed comfort. Certainly that was relevant in this situation, as so many were hurt and not enough were available to help. I needed to recruit people who are warm-hearted and who care about helping others, since doing simple acts of kindness did not require years of professional training. Even with my 30 years experience, I've found that a good initial approach to help most survivors is to do simple acts of comforting. For example, we brought water and warm gloves and posed a simple question, "Hi, do you need anything?" to 9/11 rescue workers in the pit at the World Trade Center. The plan I developed with Father Wismick in Haiti was to train community leaders and common folk as comforters and helpers, so that they could then pass the techniques on to others in the village to create sustainability until other professional teams could come to offer further training and assessment of needs. Spying a young boy in a brown Boy Scout uniform, I had an "aha" moment, remembering how my brother had been a scout and recalling my own wonderful years as a Girl Scout, and realizing how these youths are already prepared to help. I immediately gathered the five Boy Scouts and one Girl Scout, and trained them in some simple psychological first-aid techniques. Then we all left for the hospital to help patients.


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Judy Kuriansky, Ph.D
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