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Paramedic Starts Program To Prepare Emergency Workers For The Worst

April 11, 1988

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) _ Jeffrey Mitchell will never forget the sight of a 19-year-old bride killed in an auto crash and pinned in her car in her bloodied white wedding gown.

It was several years ago, but the memory of that accident, which occurred when the newlyweds’ car crashed into a pickup truck, helped lead Mitchell, a former Maryland paramedic, to create a program to help other paramedics, firefighters and police cope with the tragedies they encounter.

In a series of group discussions, called crisis debriefings, rescuers share their feelings and thoughts about serious accidents, fires and other disasters and deaths.

″It gets people’s feelings off their chests, so they are not feeling it weeks or months later,″ said Dan Hardester, emergency medical services coordinator in Maitland, in central Florida.

″Law enforcement officials view themselves and are viewed by the citizens as a different kind of people. If you see a firefighter crying, you would think: ‘Hey, what’s wrong with him? It’s part of the job. If you can’t take it, get out.’ But they are not robots. We are all human beings. We have feelings.″

It’s important for emergency workers to vent their feelings or they later could suffer from serious stress reactions, such as depression, irritability, confusion, withdrawal and cardiac disease, said Mitchell, who worked as a paramedic-firefighter for nine years and holds a doctorate in psychology.

A debriefing session usually is scheduled one day after a tragedy. The rescue workers gather with a specially trained psychologist and with peers, who act as unbiased supporters. The workers discuss how the incident affected them and how to cope with the stress. And if the session is successful, they also learn that their feelings are not unique, Mitchell said.

Mitchell, who has spoken throughout the country about his program, trains debriefing teams while also working as assistant professor of emergency health services at the University of Maryland.

Cities and counties across the country use his methods, but only eight states, including Florida, have coordinated statewide programs. Orange County was the first in the state to organize a debriefing team of emergency workers from most area police and fire departments.

The team now serves four other counties - Brevard, Volusia, Seminole and Lake. A 15-member regional board composed of agency chiefs coordinates the program in the five counties.

They call debriefings for traumatic events, such as deaths or serious injuries to children or co-workers. Since March 1987, the team has scheduled 13 debriefings, including one after a gunman killed six people and injured 28 in Palm Bay last April.

Maitland paramedic Kim Neisler wishes the program had been available for her a few years ago when she worked on a case in which a Maitland man killed his young son, then killed himself and set his apartment on fire.

The boy looked like Neisler’s nephew.

She spent a night in a hospital wracked by nausea and finally became dehydrated as a result.

″I tried to go back and deal with it myself, but basically I didn’t deal with it,″ she said.

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