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EARTHQUAKE / THE LONG ROAD BACK : Psychologists Find Key Role in Disasters : Counseling: They help alleviate fears by assuring victims that the emotions they experience are normal. Work by therapists with Red Cross is relatively new.

January 19, 1994|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

Gary Brown escorts a limping Ybaldo Cano into the shade of a tree outside the San Fernando Recreation Center, which has been transformed into an American Red Cross shelter.

Cano banged up his foot while racing to assist his grandmother in the earthquake. But his foot is not his main concern at the moment.

A doctor at the shelter has just taken Cano's blood pressure, and it's up--way up. This is strange, he protests to the doctor. He has never had high blood pressure before.

The doctor calls for Brown, one of two psychologists who have been dispatched to do what Red Cross officials say is as important in disasters as providing bandages, blankets and food: dispense curbside counseling to the traumatized.

"I told him I took my own blood pressure after the earthquake and it was as bad as his," Brown said, after spending about 10 minutes with Cano. "I did some breathing exercises with him. And I educated him a little about what to expect in terms of his anxiety.

"It's important for people to now that they are having normal responses to a very abnormal event."

It has been only a few years since psychologists affiliated with the American Psychological Assn. began joining the Red Cross as part of a nationwide Disaster Response Network. But for several dozen Southern California psychologists in the network, the training has come quickly: riots, fires and an earthquake, all within two years.

Brown and his teammate at the shelter this day--Encino psychologist Robert T. Scott--have their routine down pat. They know just whom to approach at disaster sites and how they can best help.

"There are common themes that run through all disasters," Scott said. "There is a sense of helplessness, of losing control and separation anxiety for people who have been forced to leave their homes. Our main message for these people is that what they are feeling is very normal; that they are OK."

Scott eyes the field outside the San Fernando Recreation Center, where about 800 people spent Monday night. He will not approach people who are in tents or gathered in large, tight groups cooking their lunches on a grill.

"The tent says to me that these people have a sense that they are going to do this on their own. That is empowering for them," he said.

Scott and Brown keep an eye out for people who are alone, look distraught, or who are struggling to cope with children or other family members.

Scott grabs Ernie, the dog puppet, and a stack of brochures on coping with a disaster and walks into the recreation center.

"I have to get into some sort of role--maybe I'll hand out coffee--so that I can dispense mental health," he said.

It is not hard to find people in need of consolation or advice. Scott sits on one of the bright green cots in the center and talks with Maria Thalman of San Fernando. Her grandson, Charles Kelly, 5, is having a tough go of it the morning after the quake. Charles, it seems, crawled unassisted out a window of the badly damaged apartment building where Thalman lives. It was some time, in the darkness and chaos, before grandmother and grandson found each other.

Both are shook up.

Charles shrieks and buries his face in the cot when Scott sits down near him. But after talking with Thalman for a few minutes, the youngster takes a peek, curious about the puppet Scott is holding. Soon, Scott and Charles and Ernie are chatting, and the little boy seems calmer.

"He's just cranky," Scott said after the therapy session. "He has had a long night."

However, the real goal of these psychological SWAT teams is to prevent the major mental health problems that can creep into lives in the numbing aftermath of a major disaster.

Substance abuse, child and spouse abuse and divorces become more common among people under heavy, long-term stress, experts say. Some people develop post-traumatic stress disorder, a serious ailment that often surfaces several months or years after a frightening event. People who suffer from the disorder typically keep re-experiencing the trauma and the emotions linked to it.

According to the American Psychological Assn., psychological intervention immediately after the trauma can help minimize or prevent post-traumatic stress disorder.

Scott and Brown spend the hot day talking gently with people: sharing smiles, hugs and hope; empathizing and agreeing that the past 30 hours have been very, very scary.

Scott crouches before a half-dozen young children. The puppy puppet, Ernie, is there too.

"Ernie got scared too," Scott tells the children. "His heart was pounding. He felt the shaking."

A little boy begins nodding his head, his eyes widening as he looks at Scott and Ernie.

"Yes," the boy pipes up in agreement, "And was Ernie telling God to stop the shaking too?"

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