Trauma’s New Best Friend
United Hatzalah Welcomes Newest Recruit and First Member of Psychotrauma K-9 Unit
On Sunday, Israel’s EMS Psychotrauma Unit welcomed its newest member who has four paws and is named Lucy. Lucy got her paws wet, so to speak, responding with her handler Batya Jaffe to a building fire that took place in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem on Sunday, where an older man was critically injured when his apartment caught fire. In addition to other unit members who provided stabilizing treatment for those affected by the fire, Lucy was on hand to help patients calm down, recover, and cope with the incident.
The term Psychotrauma Unit refers to United Hatzalah’s trauma and crisis response unit. The unit is tasked with responding to traumatic scenes that take place at or in the aftermath of medical emergencies and providing psychological and emotional first aid for the people affected by the emergency. These people can be the patients themselves, their family members, neighbors or even passersby who happened to witness the scene and were traumatized by what they saw and experienced.
“We have gone on a lot of calls over the past year that the unit has been in operation and while we have been able to treat people successfully, we have noticed that in certain cases people need help at the onset of the treatment to allow us to help stabilize them,” said Miriam Ballin, Director of the Psychotrauma unit.
“We always look for more stabilization techniques to add to our toolbox and a therapy dog is a great addition. Research on the topic shows that therapy dogs have proven to be very helpful when used in traumatic situations, especially when dealing with children and the elderly. So when we opened our second training course we made sure to include two therapy dogs and their handlers in our group,” Ballin added.
Ballin said that for now, Lucy is being deployed at scenes of major traumas where there are a lot of people involved. “Lucy can help distract people from the trauma that they are witnessing, and focus on something else. By her being on scene she allows those who are suffering emotionally from the trauma to connect to something real by touch or even just by seeing her with her vest on. Lucy allows people to connect back to reality in a non-threatening manner. The people suffering do not have to do anything, or report anything to anyone, with Lucy around they can just recognize that she is there, and that alone brings them one step closer to stabilization.”
During the call on Sunday in Gilo, Lucy’s presence was highly effective according to members of the psychotrauma unit who were present at the scene. “While some people can find it threatening to talk to other people at the scene because they feel judged by them, no one is judged by Lucy and that is part of her power,” explained one of the team members. “Lucy got things going with a number of the people traumatized on Sunday, and we took it from there to continue stabilizing the patients,” they said.
Batya Jaffe is Lucy’s owner as well as her handler. Both Jaffe and Lucy underwent special training at Hebrew University to allow Lucy to become a therapy dog. Jaffe continued her studies and took an intensive three-year course that now enables her to train others to become therapy dogs and therapy dog handlers. While at the beginning of treatment Lucy is often used to get people to open up and allow a connection with other people, towards the end of calls Lucy also plays her part in helping keep people who have suffered trauma involved with something while they wait for the arrival of family members and friends who can provide support.
“My husband Moshe is an EMT and my brother-in-law Aryeh is a Doctor. Both have been involved with United Hatzalah for a number of years. So although I myself come from the therapy background, getting involved with the organization seemed natural, once there was a therapy unit.”
Jaffe expanded on the details of Lucy’s role in the unit and how she provides solace for those who have just suffered or witnessed a tragedy. “One of the basic rules we learned in animal therapy, is that animals don’t judge people. While some patients may be hesitant to talk with people, even therapists from our unit, that same hesitancy does not exist with Lucy. Lucy is also there to be pet and that gives people a sense of stable tactile reality in a loving way. It helps people remember that there are positive things in the world that they can come back to. The response to Lucy’s presence during Sunday’s emergency was very positive. People liked the idea of seeing a dog in a first responder vest especially at a traumatic scene like that one.”
Jaffe added that the use of a K-9 unit is not appropriate for all situations. “We know that in certain situations when we are dealing with populations that have an aversion to dogs, then Lucy’s presence would be more of a hindrance than a benefit. Some populations do not like being around dogs. In those situations, Lucy is not called upon as we don’t want to create more stress than is already present.”
Jaffe and Lucy have been welcomed into the organization with open arms and will continue to help provide loving care for those suffering from trauma across Jerusalem and the surrounding area. From Jaffe’s experience that feeling is mutual. “The work that this unit does is simply amazing and it is a great thing for both me and Lucy to be a part of.”