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Home » Constance Alexander: First responders dealing with state’s recent disasters are ‘West Kentucky Strong’
At start time, the conference center at West Kentucky Dam Village was full. The only seats left were in the front row. Following the recent natural disasters in western Kentucky, more than eighty participants attended this “Health for a Change” mental health support and education event.
So many had signed up in advance that the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky created a waiting list of more than a hundred people.
The four-hour session was designed to meet the needs of everyone working with natural disaster survivors, including response teams, long-term recovery groups, mental health providers, health care workers and Family Resource and Youth Service Center (FRYSC) staff. . There were Red Cross workers from Marshall County; a manager of Merryman House who serves eight counties in the region; nurses, firefighters, rescue workers; and various health-related nonprofit organizations from Madisonville, Eddyville, Mayfield, Murray and other western Kentucky communities.
One of the first messages to those who responded to the tornadoes that ripped through the western Kentucky region last year was, “You’re doing a great job. Attempted long-term recovery.”
The session began with a deep breathing exercise and visualizations that correlated with a series of prompts. With her extensive skills and background in thanatology, hospice and community health, Karen Thompson guided the group through a full body relaxation process.
She also reiterated fundamental concepts and provoked an in-depth exchange on the challenges and complexities of managing emotional responses related to trauma. Guilt, grief, panic, denial, and fear are some of the typical responses, all presented with the reminders “Stress and trauma are different for everyone” and “People grieve in their own time.”
Shelley Baer, owner and executive director of the area’s Emerald Therapy Centers, explained how the aftermath 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 if you see sights or hear sounds that remind you of what happened, it can trigger the same feeling of stress that you experienced when you were in danger.”
For example, a Mayfield tornado first responder had trouble with the smell of melting wax after the disaster. It was a reminder of the devastation at Mayfield Consumer Products, a candle factory that killed nine people on December 10, 2021.
This type of enduring connection, if left unaddressed, can lead to flashbacks, substance abuse, physical discomfort, and self-isolation.
“You can’t change what happened,” Baer explained, “but your power lies in learning to think about it differently.”
Baer outlined the range of responses to trauma by age group. At each age, she reminded the group that physical activity and good nutrition promote well-being, as opposed to that masturbation trifecta: deck chair, beer, and TV.
Marcie Timmerman, executive director of Mental Health of America, addressed specifics in situations where an individual needs immediate help.
“Call 988,” she advised, referring to the new 988 area code, which operates through the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Enacted by federal law in 2020, 988 is the first step toward a transformed crisis care system in America.
988 is not just a lifeline, but a nationwide collector of important data. For example, in the US in 2020 there was a suicide death every 11 minutes. In addition, suicide is one of the leading causes of death for people in the 10-34 age group.
Jennie Morehead, Director of the Emerald Foundation, discussed certain aspects of the Foundation’s services. She mentioned wellness and educational events and emphasized the importance of providing mental health services to underserved children and families in rural communities.
dr Lee Luck, a psychologist, firefighter and captain at St. Matthews Fire & EMS, ended the 4-hour session at face-pace by beginning with a succinct instruction: “You learn more about an organization’s priorities, not from a mission statement , but from a budget.”
He reminded the group, “Everyone is a first responder,” and emphasized the high risk of suicide in this role.
dr Luck went on to describe a specific example that for him personally, at 2:30 a.m. on October 1, 2022, his skin began to burn and melt.
“It was hard to think,” he recalled.
After being able to leave the perilous situation, he endured the aftermath of his injuries, adding that his recovery and healing came with his partner’s dedicated help and support.
“For seventy days in a row, my partner changed my bandage,” he said.
Then he added a helpful hint that got audiences laughing: “To maintain a relationship,” he explained, “buy a bidet.”
He concluded with a video clip from MASH showing 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 wasn’t immune to extreme emotional reactions.
The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky is a statewide organization with two priority initiatives: Access to Health Care and Child Health. The current strategic plan is available on the website.