Port au Prince, Haiti Day 10, Trip 4

Today is my last day on this trip. I’ll have a little more rest between this trip and the next. Its time.

I have spent the past 2 days working with groups of vibrant young people who work with a local cell phone company. Most of my work is large group informational sessions on stress, trauma, support, coping etc. I am also providing “ti konsays” (little consults) on an as needed basis. I don’t have as much time with this group, so I am limited to consults vs. more therapeutic work.

One young man, in his introduction, began to describe his current “symptoms” (shaking, pervasive fear, high stress levels, distraction) and said he had frozen when the earthquake happened. He said this before I talked about the nervous system, fight-flight freeze reactions,etc.

He was one of the first to wait and meet with me. As he described his “symptoms” it became clear to me he would benefit from more intensive attention—one small session can only begin to assist in the amelioration of these distress signals, and, there are ethical issues in going too deep without appropriate follow up time.

An intuitive hunch directed me to ask him to tell history about the moments he experienced during the earthquake. I don’t think I have asked anyone to do this, yet. If people volunteer to share, I listen. I don’t ask, nor do I push.

He shared that he was working at the airport, and was supervising the sales area. He was responsible for the cash box and the other employees working in their small, gated (but open at the time) work space.

When the quake began, people all around began to run. He felt the impulse to run. Responsible for large sums of cash, he did not. He planted himself by the cashbox. When his employees began to panic, he instructed them to stay—he said “We don’t know what’s happening—wait and see”.Apractical, logical strategy –with some risk, certainly–in a moment of mass chaos—and one that would not have been possible if he had truly “frozen”.

When the building began to crumble around him—glass breaking, concrete and plaster falling, the loudness of destruction and the earth violently shifting place—he yelled at his employees to wait ( their small work space remained intact) until it ended. He did this because “I had no idea what was happening. I did not know exactly what the danger was and didn’t want anyone to get hurt.” He also did not want to leave the cash box unattended.

Once the shaking ended he instructed all his employees to run to safety. Then he remained to lock and close the cash box, the office, and the gate, and only then did he run out of the airport to see the horror unfolding around him.He spent the next many hours making sure all the employees stayed together until they could get home to families.

As he shared this story, he was visibly frightened. He shook. He fought back tears. He became paler. His “energy” appeared to shrink. He reported feeling weak and afraid.

I asked him where he felt weak and afraid. “My legs. My heart. Its beating so fast.”

“Take a breath. Feel your heart. It beats because you are still here. Breathe again. Take a few breaths. Don’t change your breath—just breathe.”

He calmed down; slowed down. I asked him to “check in” with his legs.

“They feel a little stronger but they are still afraid.”I noticed they were trembling—discharging. I asked what they wanted to do.


“Did they want to run when the earthquake happened?”

“Yes—but I had to stay—I had to protect the office and the money.”

I might have had him run in place, or work more metaphorically or with micro-movements,with the image or act of running, were I in place or context where we could go deeper.


“Where can you run?”

“Nowhere now.”

“Where do you love to run?”

“The beach.”

He left with a “home play” assignment—go the beach, which is close to Port au Prince and easily accessible to him, and run. “Run Run Run Run. Run until you want to stop”.

He agreed. He will go this weekend, and run.He will write me and give me a report after he runs.

We checked in with his legs again; they were strong, and still. “I can feel them under me. I can feel them carry me.”

As we finished our “ti konsay”, I reinforced for him that he had not actually “frozen”, he had actually acted. Acted to ensure safety for his team and for the offices’ financial and other resources. I reminded him that this level of cognition and awareness is typical of soldier’s prepared to protect and defend.I asked if he was aware that he had put his own life at risk, by remaining in the airport even after others left. He became very still, and he said “I have not thought about that. That’s why I am so scared. Now I know—next time—I will run.”

Finishing “Yes you took a risk, and, you survived. You are still here. You were strong, awake, and brave. Does your supervisor know you did this?”

He replied that his supervisor had never even asked how he was, where he was, or what had happened.

With his permission, I share his story,to ensure that this young man’s small but significant actions will be acknowledged.

This is the coming full circle: The Running.The practical learning that next time –if this happens again–he will try a different strategy. He will run. Acknowledgement—that he is here, and that someone knows how extraordinarily well he did his job during 35 seconds of hell.

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