Sitting in the middle of a group of 20 or so relative strangers aside from my microbiology professor, in my head I'm praying the rain outside continues. The teacher of the Community Emergency Response Team training at our local Emergency Management department is hoping that we get out into the field today so we can learn to use the fire extinguisher correctly. I'm thinking everyone else is hoping that they can get out and set something on fire to break up the monotony of lecture, but I'm praying to learn about disaster psychology or hell, even teach me about terrorism. I'm just hoping we don't have to get close to a fire today. I haven't slept, my anxiety level is high, and even just talking about electrical fires earlier was making me jumpy.
I wondered--could I even be effective as a CERT volunteer? If I'm having stomach flutters thinking about fire, what happens when I get tunnel vision when trying to fight a small one? What happens when I'm in a building trying to extricate a victim from a building that has moderate damage? Do I fall down on the job and lay helpless and let other people pick up my slack?
I was told by a psychologist last year or so that I most likely have complex post-traumatic stress disorder. It manifests in different ways for different people, but for me, I tend to be extremely easily startled (hyperarousal), super anxious and have panic attacks on occasion, and have issues with nightmares and re-experiencing. I had the majority of the issues under control in 2008, and whether that psychologist at the time knew it or not that I had PTSD, he treated it well.
Until something weird happened.
Last November, we tried to jump my partner's car. The jumper cables were apparently faulty and caught on fire and as I tried to grab them to stop the smoking, the cables caused a serious burn on my right hand. It was a second to third degree burn. I did not know how to respond other than to run my hand under lukewarm tap water, and cry. I went to the ER, waited for an hour or more to see someone, they put silver sulfadiazine on it, wrapped it, gave me a tetanus shot, and sent me home. It was very, very painful in some places, not so much in others, and all I kept thinking about was the incident. The smoke billowing off of our cars. Grabbing the melted cables. Running to the tap.
Over the next few days, I kept having nightmares about fires, electrical shocks, burns, anything painful really. It was awful. I kept dressing the wound and it wouldn't heal. I took myself to the doctor's office for follow up, and he gave me another ointment that began the healing process a lot faster. It began to heal, and so did I.
But my brain didn't move on.
Anytime I saw burns, fire, talked about electric, saw symbols for fire, shocks, chemical burns, anything of that nature, my brain went immediately back to running around with charred skin on my right hand. I was thrown back to a moment in time I'd rather forget and move on from. While it generally didn't last long, and I distracted myself from the thoughts in some fashion, it was intrusive enough to be a nuisance.
Until CERT. There was no getting around CERT. I had to take this class offered by the county emergency management office for my microbiology class that I'm not doing so hot in right now. It's for 20 points extra credit, plus an hour extra that I need to transfer to my nursing program in a different college. Its primary goal is preparedness for a group of volunteers to be search and rescue, medical triage, and community outreach in the event of a disaster. I had to face my fear of the unknown, of other people, of smoke, of electricity, and most importantly, fire.
On the last day of our training, we broke up into teams for our search and rescue exercise. A building was structurally unsafe, had moderate damage, and we had four victims inside. A second severe storm was on the way in an hour and we had to get the victims out. The smoke, the fire, the fears... they started sinking in my stomach as I saw the billowing out of the building.
Hardhat and work gloves on, and on our team of six went into a search and rescue operation. As soon as that natural leadership structure was established, my nerves were gone. I kept thinking to myself as I walked through the structure, "When am I going to panic?" I kept breathing, even as the dust particulates impeded my vision and I couldn't see to spider strap my victim (a 180 lb. mannequin with an arm and a leg missing) to the backboard. I just went with it.
Psh, I could handle anything.
I left that building with a clearer understanding of not only how to function in a team setting, how to perform a search and rescue, and how to be a part of CERT, I left that building with more self-esteem than I've felt in months. I finally felt like I could do amazing things. I can conquer anything. If I can face fire, if I can face falling, if I can face others, and pathogens, and smoke, and loss of vision, and darkness... I can do just about anything I set my mind to do. It opened also the pathway to my life--the fears I had about my career path, the anxiety about actually being able to do it--all disappeared in the blink of an eye. An eye full of smoke and particulate matter.
Something inside me changed yesterday when I walked free of that old warehouse. While PTSD can make me susceptible to feeling trauma differently, experiencing it in a disordered manner, and reacting in a dysfunctional way, I have the belief now that I have the ultimate control over my own feelings, judgements, and reactions. Even though I've been told this my whole life, until yesterday I've never felt it. I faced nearly all the fears I've had my whole life in one setting, plus a fear that's newly acquired, and the feeling is incredible, long lasting, and will last a lifetime.
The Community Emergency Response Team training is a program that gave me the tools I needed to keep myself safe and help others. It taught me the surfaces of disaster psychology, search and rescue, triage, first aid, terrorism, incident management systems, and organization. I learned how to turn off utilities, the difference between light and heavy damage to buildings, what's best to do when exposed to wet or dry chemicals, and not all fire extinguishers are for all fires. Not only did I learn I could save lives, save limbs, save buildings... I saved myself in the process.
If anyone is interested in CERT, a good place to start is http://www.citizencorps.gov/cert which shows the CERT organization in your area. There are over 1100 CERTs, and while it doesn't replace first responders by any means, when they become overwhelmed and need to focus on heavily damaged areas or you are the first on scene to a minor incident, it can really be a beneficial training to have. Even if you don't become an official CERT volunteer, just having the knowledge is something from which anyone can benefit.