By Kamila Forkosh-Lavan
My name’s Kamila Forkosh – Lavan, and I’m a practicing psychologist from Jerusalem. I volunteer with United Hatzalah of Israel’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit, a unit that provides psychological first aid for people suffering from mental or emotional stress after having been involved in or witnessed a trauma resulting from a medical emergency or disaster.
Just recently, I got a call from United Hatzalah asking if I would be willing to travel to Puerto Rico in order to assist the victims of Hurricane Fiona. I would be tasked with providing them with psychological first aid (PFA) and treating people who have gone through the trauma of losing everything they have due to the hurricane, some for the second time in five years.
I have a very busy private practice, seeing families, couples, and children, and, often working with businesses. I was able to reschedule all of the sessions and meetings – the willingness of everyone to adjust and be flexible, and work together, is something I appreciate greatly.
I met most of the team that I would be working with at the airport in Israel just prior to departure. As we began our journey together I got to know them all. Each was a volunteer from the PCRU and one additional EMT. Everyone is incredibly skilled and very easy to work with. Each person brings their own expertise to the mission and each one of us adds to the expertise of the others. When we landed in the United States for a short stop en route to Puerto Rico, we met the team leader, Gavy Friedson, and another volunteer from the U.S. The group’s mission is to provide help, be it medical, psychological, emotional, or logistical, to those we met in need of assistance. This mission also has a huge potential for raising awareness about the importance of mental health after dealing with a major disaster and the resulting traumas, as well as helping the image of Israel in the world. Helping others is what we do and who we are. Whenever I was asked about who we are and what we are doing I jumped at the chance to explain that we’re an international first response unit from Israel and what the idea is behind United Hatzalah and the PCRU. That we are a group of highly trained experts who drop everything when the need arises and rush out to help others. This is what we are doing here as well.
The organization took care of all of the logistics and really enabled us to focus on our work.
The psychological work came with very mixed feelings. It is difficult to see people suffering after having lost everything they own. I felt a sense of satisfaction helping people. We helped people in two different districts that hadn’t yet received help from other agencies or government bodies. In Anasco and Loiza, two different districts in the country, we met with people in their homes, in community centers, and outside, individuals as well as groups, and we worked with them. They shared with us their stories of how they were scared of the noise because of the previous hurricane Maria, five years ago, and how they had difficulty sleeping and rebuilding because they don’t know when another hurricane will hit.
One woman I met on Sunday asked me, “What do I do when I feel scared by the wind? Even a little wind now scares me. I don’t know how to continue on with life because every time I hear the branches move I get scared.” I told the woman that this is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. I explained to her how we as people work using our flight-or-fight response and how this can trigger debilitating thoughts when we are faced with triggers from previous traumas. I worked with her and gave her some techniques to use whenever she feels scared. She was very thankful.
The work we are doing is being seen by those surrounding us, people have joined our mission and become translators, as well as one young man, Luis Vasquez who is a medical student who became part of our team immediately when he learned what we were doing. They too are affected by the huge sense of loss that permeates here. The translator who was helping me in one of my sessions began to cry and we comforted each other and we hugged. The loss here is real. Each of us has had our own moments where we have cried on the shoulders of one of our fellow team members. The compassion and sense of humanity that everyone shares with one another are very heartwarming for me to see.
Saving life and helping people is a huge value for me and United Hatzalah. We have to not only save lives though, but we also need to save minds and souls as well, and that has been the majority of our work here. We also have to help one another and take care of each other as volunteers so that we can keep going and do more for the people here.
Kamila is a practicing psychologist and holds a double Ph.D. in Clinical and in Organizational Psychology. She lives in Jerusalem with her family and is a volunteer with United Hatzalah’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit.
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