BOSTON – It’s not every day that emergency first-responders and government administrators pick up crayons to depict their feelings, but recent weeks in Boston have been anything but ordinary for citizens traumatized by the April 15 Boston Marathon attack.
Crayons are just one tool deployed by six Israeli trauma experts visiting Boston to help form post-attack recovery strategies. As specialists with the Israel Trauma Coalition for Response and Preparedness (ITC), the team is working with local counterparts until Friday.
The mission started on Monday in Watertown, the Boston suburb where authorities captured alleged bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on April 19 following an intense manhunt. Meeting separately with parents, school administrators and clinical staff, ITC members discussed communal strategies to recover from the highest profile terror attack in the US since Sept. 11, 2001.
“They spoke a lot about validating people’s normal responses to what were very abnormal, traumatic events,” said Jason Del Porto, vice principal of Watertown Middle School and chair of the district’s critical incident team. “We had brought in other experts to speak about trauma, but the Israelis came with a level of practical real-life experience that brought it to a new level.”
‘We had brought in other experts to speak about trauma, but the Israelis came with a level of practical real-life experience that brought it to a new level’
Whether serving in Mumbai, India or Toulouse, France, the ITC’s trauma specialists work closely with community stakeholders to devise recovery plans. Once the initial shock of an attack or catastrophe wanes, ITC staff will reframe the situation for victims by refocusing their thinking.
Each ITC intervention aims to create a “coordinated, synergetic coping and recovering process that will be open to the entire community.”
Coalition experts hope new support systems will remain in place long after the team returns to Israel.
Created in 2001, the ITC was shaped during the Second Intifada years of suicide bombings. The group went on to respond to conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon while opening a spate of “resilience centers” across Israel. Gradually, the coalition’s focus expanded from individual victims to a more holistic approach involving community reinvigoration.
“What we’ve learned in Israel is to make a shift away from focusing on an individual’s trauma as some kind of pathology,” said Talia Levanon, ITC director. “Today, we focus on the whole community as a source of resilience and strength following a disaster or attack.”
Levanon has substantial experience working with trauma victims, starting with her Israeli army service during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Four decades later, she still works with victims and bereaved families, including beyond Israel’s borders in post-tsunami Japan and Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans.
In addition to the school meetings in Watertown, ITC experts held a gathering of community health professionals open to the public yesterday in Westborough, outside Boston.
During a five-hour “Psychological First Aid and Resilience” training, two-dozen social workers and first-responders discussed concepts like acute stress reaction and the principle of continuity in treating victims. Professionals used crayons to portray their emotions before, during and after the April 15 terror attack.
“People need to tell stories and have the option to ventilate,” said the ITC’s Dr. Ruvie Rogel, an expert in post-terror attack injuries related to stress. “We live our lives by telling stories.”
Rogel also represented the ITC in Haiti, where he taught emotional resilience techniques following the 2010 earthquake. In each locale, Rogel helps trauma victims “reclaim” their emotional lives with individual coping plans. The four-point plan includes ventilation, validation, acknowledgement and coping.
Bostonians at yesterday’s public session for health professionals were surprised to learn that “trauma” is a potential admitting status in Israeli hospitals. This recognition of post-event trauma allows victims to obtain government compensation, a more difficult proposition in the US.
In Israel, trauma patients are speedily sent from hospitals to out-patient facilities. Keeping victims in standard hospitals can lengthen and complicate the recovery process, Rogel said. Because of such distinctions, hospitalizations related to stress injuries are lower in Israel than most countries. Traumatized patients are more easily identified and given appropriate treatment to avoid injury.
In addition to global reach, the ITC convenes more than 40 Israeli nonprofits to influence trauma-related legislation and preparedness. The coalition has helped make Israel a global leader in trauma recovery.
While some ITC members met with Watertown spiritual leaders yesterday, others sat down with staff members at Beth Israel Hospital, where alleged terrorist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was treated after capture. In what is called a “reorganizing conversation,” ITC experts spoke with hospital staff about the experience of treating the bombing suspect.
The ITC team will meet with hundreds community members by the time its visit ends on Friday. One session will be held at the Ella J. Baker House for high-risk youth in Dorchester, close to where 8-year old bombing victim Martin Richard lived. Coalition members will also meet with Armenian family doctors in Watertown – home to more than 8,000 Armenians – to discuss trauma in immigrant populations.
Sponsored by Boston’s Jewish federation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), the ITC’s work in Boston inverts the familiar scenario of the city’s Jewish community reacting to terror attacks in Israel.
“The visit of these Israeli trauma specialists has worked out beyond our expectations,” CJP’s president, Barry Shrage, said. “As soon as we met our obligation to the city’s One Fund for victims, we knew we had to bring in the trauma experts and to have them help. And before we even asked anyone to come, they told us they were coming.”
Coalition director Talia Levanon said her worldview changed after years of working in crisis regions from Asia to Atlantic City, following Hurricane Sandy.
“You are meeting different people in different parts of the world, but they all have the same fears and issues and responses,” Levanon said. “The world has become a small place and we derive a lot of strength when we work together. We speak the same emotional language all over the world.”
The writer is senior campus program officer at Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
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