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Constance Alexander: First responders dealing with state’s recent disasters are ‘West Kentucky Strong’

By start time, the conference center at West Kentucky Dam Village was packed. The only seats left were in the front row. In the wake of western Kentucky’s recent natural disasters, more than eighty participants showed up for this mental health support and training event, “Health for a Change.”

So many had signed up in advance, Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky created a waiting list of more than a hundred.

The four-hour session was designed to meet the needs of anyone working with survivors of natural disasters, including response teams, long-term recovery groups, mental health providers, health care workers, and employees of Family Resource and Youth Service Centers (FRYSC). There were Red Cross workers from Marshall County; a Merryman House administrator who serves eight counties in the region; nurses, firefighters, EMS; and assorted health-related non-profits from Madisonville, Eddyville, Mayfield, Murray and other western Kentucky communities.

(Photo provided)

One of the first messages conveyed to those who have been responding in the aftermath of the tornadoes that raged through the western Kentucky region last year was, “You’re doing a great job. Long-term recovery is trying.”

The session began with a deep breathing exercise and visualizations correlated with a series of prompts. Using her extensive skills and background in thanatology, hospice and community health, Karen Thompson guided the group in a whole-body relaxation process.

She also reviewed basic concepts and evoked in-depth exchanges about the challenges and complexities of dealing with emotional responses associated with trauma. Guilt, grief, panic, denial, and fear are some of the typical reactions, all presented with the reminders, “Stress and trauma are different for everyone,” and “People grieve on their own time.”

Shelley Baer, owner and executive director of the region’s Emerald Therapy Centers, explained how the aftereffects of trauma and responses to it are a form of self-protection. “Your body responds to a tragic event by protecting you,” Baer said. “So when you see sights or hear sounds that remind you of what’s happened, it can trigger the same sense of stress you experienced when you were in danger.”

One first responder to the Mayfield tornado, for example, had post-disaster difficulty with the smell of melting wax. It was a reminder of the devastation at Mayfield Consumer Products, a candle factory where nine people were killed on December 10, 2021.

This kind of ongoing connection, if not addressed, can result in flashbacks, substance abuse, physical complaints, and self-isolation.

“You can’t change what happened,” Baer declared, “but your power is in learning how to think about it differently.”

Baer outlined the range of responses to trauma by age group. At any age, she reminded the group that physical activity and good nutrition support well-being, as opposed to that trifecta of self-abuse: A recliner, beer and TV.

Marcie Timmerman, Executive Director of Mental Health of America, reviewed specifics in situations where a person needs immediate help.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Call 988” she advised, referring to the new 988 dialing code operated through the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Enacted through federal legislation In 2020, 988 is the first step towards a transformed crisis care system in America.

Not only is 988 a lifeline, but a gatherer of crucial data, nationwide. For instance, in 2020 the U.S. had one death by suicide every 11 minutes. In addition, suicide is a leading cause of death for people in the 10-34 age group.

Jennie Morehead, Director of Emerald Foundation, reviewed specific aspects of the Foundation’s services. She mentioned wellness and training events, emphasizing the importance of providing mental health services to under-served children and families in rural communities.

Dr. Lee Luck, a psychologist, firefighter and captain in St. Matthews Fire & EMS wrapped up the face-paced 4-hour session by starting with succinct guidance: “You learn more of an organization’s priorities, not from a mission statement, but from a budget.”

He reminded the group, “Everyone is a first responder”, and stressed the high suicide risk of that role.

Dr. Luck went on to describe a specific example that, for him personally, began on October 1, 2022 at 2:30 a.m. His riveting account of experiencing disorientation after entering a burning building included the eruption of his air alarm, and the feeling of his skin burning and melting.

“It was hard to think,” he recalled.

Once he was able to exit the perilous situation, he endured the aftermath of his injuries, adding that his recovery and healing were linked to the dedicated help and support of his partner.

“For seventy days in a row, my partner changed my dressings,” he said.

Then he added a helpful hint that drew laughter from the audience: “To preserve a relationship,” he declared, “buy a bidet.”

He wrapped up with a video clip from MASH that demonstrated the cumulative aspects of trauma and the way a seemingly irrelevant conversation can be a trigger. In less than 3 minutes, the “Hot Lips” character realized that despite her experience as a nurse in a war zone, she was not immune to extreme emotional reactions.

Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky is a statewide organization with two priority initiatives: Access to health care and children’s health. The current strategic plan is available on the website.

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