T K Thomas
T K Thomas

Disasters and Trauma.!

Prof. T K Thomas

When we see a major accident or watch on television or hear about a natural or manmade disaster, we may feel bad and may be empathetic towards the victims. But unless a near or dear one is involved or we ourselves become victims, it is difficult to fathom the real pain, loss and trauma. From a distance it may just be the loss of some unknown person or persons or in many cases just numbers- so many lives lost or property worth so much money is lost. Here are two personal experiences which may strike a chord in many. The overwhelming out pouring of help and assistance to almost the entire state of Kerala last month is an outward expression of such human empathy.

You might have seen adventure or disaster movies of the 1970s like ‘The Towering Inferno’ or ‘Poseidon Adventure’. The graphic details shown on television of the rescue of a children’s football team in Thailand from a flooded cave is still green in our memory. But what the Kerala news channels showed of the overflowing rivers and water reservoirs, crumbling houses and landslides, daredevil rescue operations by NDRF, our armed forces and our own fishermen who did voluntary work were realistic and hair raising.

Sunday, 18th September 2011. It was dusk and was raining intermittently. By 6 it was quite dark and one was all alone on the top floor pent house of our academic block. There wasn’t a soul in the whole building housing many departments of the Sikkim Central University except a security guard at the road level three floors below where one was residing; below the road level there were two or three more floors. One looked out of the window to watch a wild river, about fifty meters from our Shanti Niketan building. But for the gurgling sound of the swift flowing river one could hear only just the stridulating, chirping sound of crickets.

At 6.10 there was a deafening sound and a strange feeling set in and it took a few seconds to realize that it was an earthquake and quite a big one at that. Sauce and pickle bottles on the dining table fell off; there were some cracks appearing on the wall. The quake stopped in a few seconds and one was dumbfounded and stood motionless under a doorway; had read somewhere that in the event of an earthquake it is advisable to stand under a wooden door. A few minutes later there was loud knocking on the door and two students of the university asking me to go out with them immediately as there were possibilities of post tremors. The students took me to the small football field of the nearby Bahai School where residents of the area had gathered. That night the students took me to their room as our building was not considered safe and one was not alone. It was a 6.9 magnitude earth quake.

The following day, one set out in search of some place to stay. The search ended in the beautiful Teentalay Resort close to the historic monastery of Rumtek where one lived for the next three months in a large suite. The eerie silence after nightfall added to one’s loneliness. Visions of the 18th evening kept haunting and sleeplessness was the result. Will there be another bigger quake [there were wild rumors of that] and what will one do? Instead of sleeping in the bedroom would sleep on the sofa in the sitting room with a bag packed with immediate necessities, ready to jump out of the room in case there was a bigger quake! There was a feeling of disjointed psyche; little did one realize that it was actually post disaster trauma! It took some days and an earlier experience of volunteering in Gujarat helped one to cope with the situation.

The second experience was in Gujarat a decade earlier. One was waiting to start the live running commentary [on All India Radio] of the Republic Day Parade in 2001. As usual Rajpath wore a festive look and guests had started occupying seats. Around 8.50am there were certain unusual movements of some VIPs including some ministers near the saluting dais. At 9 one heard the AIR news bulletin on the headphone about an earthquake hitting Bhuj and Gujarat. It was after the Parade was over that we came to know that it was a massive earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale which had hit at 8.46 AM. Almost 20,000 people had perished and over 1.5 lakh people injured.

Two days after the massive earth quake one was in Bhuj along with a group of doctors and social workers. We had gone on behalf of a NGO, Caring Foundation. Wherever we went we found massive destruction and human misery. In some of the tribal hamlets every dwelling place had collapsed. People of various age groups were aimlessly wandering, waiting for some relief agency to distribute food. People with lost or forlorn looks obviously were trying to come to terms with life. There were loud cries of those who could not find out the whereabouts of their near and dear ones. We came across many who appeared to have lost their mental balance.

One was with a team of doctors and psychiatrists. We were there to counsel them and pep up their morale. In one tribal village, when the victims came to know about the presence of our team, they lined up for consultation. Most of them probably were seeing a doctor for the first time in their life. They had all sort of complaints dental, eye, stomach, skin and other problems. One stayed in a tent provided by the then Gurudaspur MP and actor Vinod Khanna for three days. We would talk to small groups, counsel them and allow them to open up and share their pains. These helped release of their pent up pain, fear of uncertain future and anguish. Many of them would blame God for the disaster and their miserable existence. Our counselors and doctors helped them to come to terms with life. This in fact was a firsthand experience of a major disaster, the suffering of people, the trauma they went through, becoming penniless with all possessions lost, an uncertain future and desperation, even suicidal tendencies. The trauma continued for months even with unprecedented relief and rescue operations.

One has narrated the above two experiences to relate to the terrible tragedy Kerala faced last month. People exhibited tremendous fortitude, courage and unity to tide over the calamity. The whole nation showed empathy and showered the beleaguered state with resources. Presently, most people have left the relief camps and have returned to their erstwhile homes completely or partially damaged, some just vanished or many rendered unlivable with all their possessions lost. Rebuilding and rehabilitation will take a long time. But the trauma and mental fears and apprehensions may persist. It is heartening that the government and civil society initiatives are extending all possible help. Such a massive cleaning campaign in some of the worst affected areas by thousands of government and concerned citizens’ voluntary groups was indeed unique and is worth emulating.

There are voluntary groups providing post trauma counseling and sessions of sharing that can help the victims overcome such trauma. People are waiting to find a shoulder to weep on and share their miserable experiences which would help the process of their recovery from the trauma. The unprecedented floods have united people and given them the realization that in times of such devastation, acceptance of others as equal and worthy humanbeings leaving narrow confines of religious, caste and socio-economic stratifications. A disaster has no respect for our wealth or accomplishments and treats every one alike!

The other major post deluge problem is the threat of epidemics. According to media reports a few lives have already been lost due to rat fever. It is believed that constant exposure to dirty water especially those with injuries are susceptible to rat fever. There are also other epidemics if timely preventive steps are not taken. Of course with Kerala’s excellent public health system the state is capable of preventing any epidemic outbreak. However the mental health issues arising out of trauma people may encounter, need special attention.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] can develop in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. “It is natural to feel afraid during and after a traumatic situation. Fear triggers many split second changes in the body to help defend against danger or to avoid it. This “fight-or-fight “response is a typical reaction meant to protect a person from harm. Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with PTSD. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they are not in danger.” []

Fortunately, for such people who faced the recent floods and have PTSD. there are treatments and therapies.