The first speaker at TEDx Rainier 2015 was Dr. Dan Diamond, a practicing physician and first responder at dozens of disasters around the world, who shared an observation peculiar to those chaotic, frightening, and devastating events. He has seen hundreds of people reacting to the shock and horror of a tragedy unfolding. Their response, often the desire to close themselves into a safe and contained little box, metaphoric or otherwise, is completely understandable. These folks make sure that they have was they need to survive and that it and they are secure. Recovering from the trauma means keeping themselves to themselves and considering their own needs. Disasters change people’s perspectives and, often, it turns them in to people they have never known. They may hoard, knowing there is not enough to go around. They may not offer succor to unfortunates, afraid to risk the sanctity of the place they have carved out in safety.
There is a natural, emotional, and psychological tension between those in the box and those outside it.
For Hurricane Katrina – The Army sent 50,000 body bags.
Driving into New Orleans after the hurricane, the responders were met with a post-apocalyptic world. The rules were suspended, which meant that the doctor and his team could race down the empty freeway at any speed as long as it didn’t mean immediate death.
They set up in a stadium with a guarded perimeter and saw the long lines of refugees as they came in. After Katrina as in other disasters, these refugees don’t come in crying, yelling, or demanding. They come in EMPTY, so depleted that they are rag doll humans just shifting and ambulating as instructed.
In contrast to the people in the boxes and the people in the lines, Dr. Dan has seen another breed of person as well during these heartbreaking sojourns in foreign climes and closer to home. There aren’t many of them, so they stand out. These are the people guided by a mantra that goes, for lack of better phrasing, “Well, I’m doing okay, I wonder if there is something I can do for someone else. If I am going to make a difference, I will have to go outside.”
Augie was one of these people who found himself alive after the hurricane, upstairs in his home, food supplies, blankets, and basic necessities aplenty all around him as he hunkered down and the winds howled and rains battered the roof. After a while, he peeked out, and saw destruction all around. He headed out to check on neighbors, but before he got more than a short distance, he looked ahead and saw a wall of water coming toward him from where the levee had been breached. There had been a breach in one wall at 5am, but the second was a catastrophic opening 10 football fields in length. So the wall of water coming at Augie could not be dodge. It was squeegeeing houses from their foundations and pushing them into oblivion. Our little man ran back to his house, but was caught by a flow of brown, sulfurous water. He pulled himself into his house and up the stairs again, to the attic. And there he stayed for another span of hours as he waited to see what would happen next.
At last, the quiet that spoke of horror settled. Augie began putting his supplies into plastic garbage bags. He filled them with blankets, food, and clothing. And then, though he was safe, he left, making his wet way first in one direction and then another until he ran into other survivors and they told him where the help station was set up.
“Augie arrived on Tuesday and started to help,” said Dr. Diamond. “He gave people water, information, whatever they needed as we took care of them medically. I watched him bustle around the crowd of those who came for help, just doing whatever was needed cheerfully and kindly. I found myself watching this man who didn’t want to be in the box.”
One day, Augie came to Dan and asked him, “Could I have that cardboard over there against the wall?” The doctor, looking where he pointed, saw a large cardboard box that a mattress had come in. “When I saw it, all of the sudden I wasn’t sure I wanted to let him have it, so I asked him why he wanted it.” Augie looked back at the big, dry expanse of cardboard and then back at the doctor. “Well, there are seven senior citizens over there and I have covered six of them with the blankets I brought, but I need the cardboard for the seventh.”
Chagrined, the doctor told Augie to take whatever he wanted and off the selfless helper went, to create a cover for a person in need. Dr. Diamond considers those who, like Augie, act so nobly to be real heroes, often unsung. Their particular quirk of character, the decision to be of help, makes them infinitely special.
Dr. Diamond identified four steps that take this kind of person into the thick of service:
- Acknowledge that there is a problem or a need.
- Care that there may be people hurting.
- Try to do something whether you have training or not.
- Be willing to act outside that safe box and to potentially go without on behalf of others.