Grim task has meant the counselors, too, need counseling

April 28, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

OKLAHOMA CITY -- They are mental health counselors, experts at comforting victims of sudden, terrible losses. And so the widespread emotional devastation here should hardly be new to them.

Yet eight days after the car bombing, the tragedy's magnitude -- prolonged by the inability of workers to retrieve all the victims from the ruins -- is beginning to take an unexpected toll among the hundreds of psychological healers here.

Many are burned out and have gone home, leaving others to complete the task, staggered by the burdens of those who have lost loved ones, those still awaiting word on the missing, and those who have spent days and nights sifting the rubble for severed body parts and children's remains.

Emotional trauma among rescue workers and counselors is not uncommon in the aftermath of a tumultuous tragedy. But the severity of emotional disturbance among the counselors here has alarmed officials.

"When you see those tiny body bags, there's a true physical reaction," said Judy Touhey, an Orange County, Calif., nurse and a Red Cross counselor here. "It makes your chest hurt." Added Norman Borders, a tired-looking, dust-covered Oklahoma City fire and rescue worker: "When you see a victim with a wedding ring on, that really works on you."

Emotional burnout among psychological workers typically does not surface until several weeks later. "I've never seen it happen so quickly," said Ms. Touhey, who has worked at disasters all over the Western Hemisphere.

Despite the urgency of the task at hand, for instance, several excavators this week abruptly walked off the job and went home to hug their own loved ones, returning a short time later with fresh determination. Some counselors, so overcome by emotion while driving home at night, have had to pull off the highway until they could recover.

"What we're seeing is called compassion fatigue," said Dr. Frank Ochberg, a Michigan psychiatrist and expert on post-traumatic stress disorder.

Concerned about such signs of stress among the legions of workers and counselors, officials are now taking extraordinary steps to try to counter the spreading anxiety. This week, they began busing schoolchildren to the excavation site to spread encouragement and cheer among the workers.

"The kids are bringing us cookies and cards and posters that they've made. And all that really is helping to keep our spirits up, which has been pretty somber lately," said Terry Winston, another Oklahoma City fire and rescue worker.

Counselors who initially "worked the perimeter" to chat with resting workers now are "going down into the pit" to get closer to excavators.

Even the search dogs, unable to find any survivors for over a week now, have become lethargic and required psychological intervention, officials said. To cheer up the dogs, workers have actually laid down in the rubble so the dogs could "find" them and enjoy a "success."

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