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Red Cross counselor tells all on how Experiences have Changed her

Veda Alban is a philanthropist and is adamant about educating people in how best to care for themselves in body, mind and spirit. As a hospice nurse she has volunteered with the American Red Cross multiple times as a mental health counselor for natural disaster patients. Below is her story on the grief and tragedy she witnessed and the inspiring lessons she’s taken away from her volunteering experience.

The older one becomes the more one realizes that individually we are minuscule and impotent. However, collectively we can become a force to overcome adversity and alter its structure, allowing us to transform lives. Together we become compassionate advocates whereas alone we seem to simply be voices crying in the wilderness of turmoil. In the Southeastern United States between 2004 and 2010 we weathered a series of devastating hurricanes. Starting with Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne followed by Emily, Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. Prior to that, the storm that I remember most vividly was Hurricane Andrew which struck the Miami area in 1992. At the time, my husband and I were at a conference in Daytona Beach and my in-laws were on a cruise ship somewhere in the Atlantic. The evening before landfall people hunkered down in hotels along the Eastern Florida Coast from Daytona to Jacksonville having fled the projected path of violence. A year later we drove through Homestead, a suburb of Miami, and were still dazed by the level of destruction present.

Fast forward to 2004 when Charley paid the West Coast of Florida an untimely visit. Since it was predicted to make landfall considerably north of us we were home and directly in its path. After we watched our sliding glass doors buckling and swaying in the 125 mile an hour winds, we threw blankets and pillows and three bug-eyed felines into the only windowless room in our condo – the master bathroom. Cozy. It was a powerful but short-lived storm. In its aftermath we decided to check on our boat docked at a marina in a neighboring town just south of us. What we saw in our attempted drive was a tribute to the forces of nature. All along our route one side of the road was in perfect condition while the other side was demolished – block after block. Before too long though the streets were impassable with debris, mud, felled trees, and downed power lines. As darkness enveloped us, we realized that without traffic lights it would become much too hazardous to continue. Over the next few days as we ventured forth we felt vulnerable and naked. I remember driving to work and crying because National Guard troops were directing traffic and trucks from various states (New York, New Jersey, the Carolina’s, Texas just to name a few) brought us food and water, fixed our power lines and removed debris and trees from our streets. We relied entirely on others for our basic needs. As nurses and social workers we were permitted to load our cars with food, water and supplies at tents set up by the National Guard and dispensed them to the patients and families we were lucky enough to locate. Cell phone service was non-existent and GPS was not yet a widespread commodity. But it was this sense of helplessness and vulnerability that took root in our brains. So many were homeless, so many had nothing.

Several years before Charley, as if knowing something was in the wind, the American Red Cross had approached Social Workers, Chaplains and Nurses from our local hospice to be trained as Disaster Mental Health Counselors. While other Red Cross members doled out water, sandwiches, money, provided temporary shelter and much more, we tried to put a Band-Aid on the gaping wounds of grief. We saw hundreds of people a day and while they fell asleep on a cot in a school or church hall, we retired to the comforts of our own space. Our children were safe, our pets looked after and even if we didn’t have electricity, we had the basic comforts of home. Who said life was fair? Who said that we in the so-called “helping professions” could fix everything? Turns out it wasn’t about fixing at all. It was simply about being present; and then, being present again. By the time Hurricane Katrina struck our Gulf Coast neighbor, we had seen what devastation looked like – or so we thought. But one is never really prepared to stare into the face of such massive suffering. Packing for deployment, I included such oddities as toilet paper, insect repellent, flares, and clothes I wouldn’t swelter in since Louisiana in August/September is, quite frankly, a hot, torpid jungle. The group from our office drove to Mobile, Alabama. We stopped for lunch at a truck stop and much to our embarrassment received a standing ovation from the other customers for “what we do”.

The next day we reported to our assigned disciplines for further instructions. Since I had previous experience with Charley and none of the other volunteers had, I was sent back to Tampa, FL to head up the team of Mental Health Counselors there. I wanted to beg to stay but as volunteers we are trained not to make waves over assignments. So I swallowed hard and flew back to Tampa. In addition to seeing 20 or so clients a day (who would have thought so many would have come to Florida?) I made the rounds of the five offices in the city. Each was as busy as the last. We listened to tale after tale of hardship, we comforted those beyond comfort, and we hugged and listened some more. At times we were called to deal with overwhelmed volunteers and staff as disagreements erupted amidst the high tension environment. And at the end of the long 12-hour day we dragged ourselves back to our hotels and tried to find food before collapsing into freshly made beds. No need for that toilet paper or insect repellent.

It wasn’t until 2010 that I was next deployed. After the January earthquake in Haiti I had attempted to get back in the field but things were backed up with so much red tape I had no success. When I was asked to go to Sanford, Florida I jumped at the opportunity. Due to its smaller size, Sanford’s airport only had runways large enough to accommodate troop transport planes and was used to receive refugees. Thousands and thousands were evacuated in the bellies of those drab mammoth hulls. As I faced each day the words etched on the base of the Statue of Liberty echoed in my heart: “Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. Lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Those that survived the journey stood before us. I cannot recall another time when it was so evident we were a team united for the sole purpose of relieving suffering. The refugees were given food, clothing and in some cases shelter although most had some relative to stay with (a contingency for their evacuation to the USA). Many were so ill especially the very old and the very young that they were immediately transported by EMS to the local hospitals which were soon over-crowded. Everyone helped everyone else. I was fortunate enough to speak French. Although delinquent in the Haitian vernacular I was able to understand and be understood. Centenarians, eyes clouded in sorrow at what they had witnessed, wept silently in our arms as if they might reawaken the ravages of the hell they’d left behind. Aunts and uncles, teenage siblings and grandparents came with small children whose parents had been buried under tons of rubble. Babies clung to us as if we were the only available lifeline in a black, turbulent sea.

After each experience I, and I’m certain many others, had difficulty reintegrating into our normal lives. None of us had been at the scene during the event, we had only been witnesses to the aftermath and it was difficult to truly assimilate what the victims of these events had gone through – difficult to really grasp the details of their realities. But I also believe that we as a whole made a difference. Taking each individual deed seems meaningless but to see the efforts as a whole gives me faith in humanity. We are not as drastically altered and scarred as those we served but we are forever changed. We are changed at our soul level. We know there is no such thing as “preparing for the worst” because we have no way of knowing “the worst” before it is upon us. But we can be prepared for the best in all of us and that our knowledge will allow us to shine.

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