Melissa J. Nixon, DVM
It is stressful to work a disaster. There is tragedy all around us, the physical demands of the work lead to short tempers and exhaustion, we may feel responsible for someone's grief or may simply emphasize with them too closely, or we may see death and injuries that we never imagined when we volunteered to help the animals.
Whatever, please do not just try to lock up your distress and ignore it; talk to someone about it. Sometimes just another volunteer validating your feelings is enough to make the load bearable again. We are lucky to have a professional therapist who has volunteered with our unit; you may want to talk with him if you are feeling overwhelmed.
Some of us who deal with tragedies during our day jobs use humor - sometimes pretty gross humor - to relieve the tension; such humor can also help disaster workers, though always be careful not to offend others within earshot.
Red Cross has counselors available to talk with disaster service workers; our human first aid volunteers can help you connect with that resource. I also have some counselors within the community who have expressed willingness to donate some time and caring to our workers during or immediately after a disaster incident. In some cases, those of us who work in veterinary medicine and have experience in pet loss counseling of bereaved clients can also provide understanding and support.
An important part of the debriefing process after a disaster is the opportunity to deal with feelings of anger, guilt, exhaustion, empathy, and fear that arise from disaster work. In many cases, these feelings are held back during the incident but come to the forefront just when we start trying to return to our regular lives. Please do attend the debriefing sessions after a disaster incident. Not only will you help us determine what we can do better next time; hopefully you will also have the chance to deal with any difficult emotions before they become a chronic problem.
The animals we care for are also under a great deal of stress, and they too may react adversely. Previously calm animals may begin to bite, scratch, kick, spit, or howl. They may refuse to eat; they may suddenly fight over the food bowl with a housemate they normally share with harmoniously. They may hide in terror, attempt escape on a walk, or try to dig out of their confined area. They may suffer physical health problems such as colic, premature birth, or worsening of their chronic kidney disease. Service animals separated from their human partners are especially susceptible to stress reactions and often are best housed in the command building with our crew if for some reason they are unable to be with their partner. We need to be alert for signs of stress-related problems and report them to the veterinary crew. Such cases will be evaluated and offered extra attention, a change in housing, or medication to relieve their distress. Perhaps we can arrange visits with their owner or some play sessions.
Human disaster victims are always under serious stress. They face potential loss of their home, their animals, their business; they may have a family member injured or missing. They may react with anger or extreme grief if we have not been able to find their animal or perhaps have found remains. Please treat them with compassion and help to guide them towards the counselors available within our group or those provided by Red Cross. Be aware that you may find yourself feeling helplessness, anger, and other difficult emotions as you work with these disaster victims; do not hesitate to seek help for yourself as well.
In some disasters, as with Hurricane Katrina, we may be able to save only some of a tremendous number of affected animals. You may see serious injuries and dead bodies, smell terrible smells, and hear terrifying sounds. You may feel you are living a nightmare, and indeed these experiences may flow over into your dreams at night and your daily life weeks after the fact. Again, please seek help if this happens. You will not be judged negatively for being wise enough to seek help.
You may also be a disaster victim yourself, in addition to a response volunteer. If this is the case, please let us know what we can do to help fulfill your needs.
It is nearly inevitable that volunteering to help during and after a disaster will change your life; I hope that with proper support it can be a positive growth experience rather than devastation.