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Comfort in Crisis

Murder. Suicide. Fire. When tragedy strikes home, volunteers from TIP are there to do all they can to ease the trauma.

March 06, 1997|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the police, the firefighters, the paramedics, the coroner have left, they stay on. Their job: to provide emotional first aid to families in the first few hours after a tragedy.

They are TIP (Trauma Intervention Programs) volunteers.

They were there in December after five siblings, all 10 or younger, perished in a fire that engulfed a garage in Watts where they were sleeping.

They were there earlier this month for Manuel Barrera, manager of a Koreatown apartment building, who had returned home to find the bodies of his wife, their son and his wife's brother gagged, bound and stabbed.

Karen Krauthamer recalls sitting with Barrera for hours, "just talking, until he could get some friends around him. We talked about things that aren't fair--he moved from Guatemala to bring his family to a place that's safe--and about religion, family, children."

The next morning, she was in another part of the city, comforting a young man whose father had just hanged himself from a tree.

"It was about money," Krauthamer says. "He couldn't support his family, so he went out and gambled and lost more."

Krauthamer, 37, a self-employed CPR instructor, signed on as a volunteer when TIP's L.A. pilot program began in July. In November, she became crisis manager, heading a team of 30 volunteers that includes a golf magazine publisher, a grocery clerk and a massage therapist.

On a recent midday, Krauthamer and volunteer Lee Goldsmith answered paramedics' call for a volunteer at a small apartment building east of downtown. A 42-year-old woman had been found dead in a front unit.

While police talked with other family members, Goldsmith comforted the dead woman's brother-in-law, who was frustrated, angry and a bit drunk. "Do you feel like screaming or punching something?" Goldsmith asked, placing a hand gently on his shoulder, telling him it was OK to rant, to cry.

The circumstances were bizarre, but Goldsmith, unruffled, was not there to judge. And, as a TIP volunteer, he has learned that "the uncommon is common." This woman had been dead for weeks in her locked apartment and, although her sister and brother-in-law lived in the same building--and hadn't seen her for a month--they hadn't become alarmed until it was impossible to ignore the stench.

The extended family was gathering. There would be small children coming home from school who'd have to be told of their aunt's death. There was the dead woman's son in jail to be notified.

As the television droned in the sister's apartment, and a parakeet named Margaret chirped, the long wait for the coroner began. Choosing his moment carefully, Goldsmith broached the matter of funeral arrangements, of decisions to be made such as burial or cremation.

He was to stay with the family for four hours. By the time he left, this stranger had become both friend and counselor. Hugs were exchanged all around.

Typically, a TIP call begins when a paramedic, having determined that a volunteer would be welcome, radios a 911 dispatcher, who, in turn, calls the TIP team leader on duty, who pages a volunteer.

Once there--ideally, within 20 minutes--the volunteer might make a special request on a family's behalf, such as asking the coroner for a lock of a dead child's hair, arrange for cleanup at a murder scene or explain the nitty-gritty of dealing with death. Says Krauthamer: "There's a charge of $187 for the coroner. Six weeks later, they're going to get a bill. They should know that."

They come with telephone numbers for support groups, bereavement groups, rape hotlines, self-help groups, Meals on Wheels, a Spanish-language hotline.

It's burnout work--the average volunteer stays three years--but even the grimmest jobs have ludicrous moments. Once, an 85-year-old woman whose husband had just died had only one request of Krauthamer: to sit with her and read the National Enquirer.

During their intensive 50-hour training, volunteers are taught what to say ("This must be very difficult for you") and what not to say ("God has his reasons"). Says Krauthamer: "You're very honest. You don't soften the blow." In the case of a suicide, "You don't say, 'It was probably an accident,' but rather, 'Do you think he was in a lot of pain?' "

Experiences such as the following, shared in class, are also part of the training: Jeanne Koth, bookkeeper at a Westside market, had been summoned at 2:30 a.m. to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, where a runaway teen had been brought after fainting. After Koth talked with her for an hour, the girl decided to go home.

Three volunteers had been called to an apartment building where an armed man had barricaded himself inside and set the building on fire after threatening, then releasing, his girlfriend. Once police had things under control, volunteers helped find someone to board up the building and arranged for a hotel voucher, food and diapers for the woman and the couple's two children.

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