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A Response to a Catastrophe

Stephen M. Raffle, M.D.

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Curriculum Vitae

By Stephen M. Raffle, M.D.

In October 1989 immediately following the Loma Prieta earthquake, several employers in Oakland had to deal with the death of employees after the collapse of the Cypress Freeway. The deaths of several employees from these companies had a ripple effect throughout the companies in addition to the overall sense of catastrophe from the earthquake. The day after the earthquake, I telephoned the medical director of one company and the human resources director of another company offering to meet with human resources to discuss the psychological consequences of catastrophic occurrences. Given the magnitude of the disaster and my ongoing relationship with these organizations, I told them I would not charge for my time. This was a direct message from me about how important I thought it was for them to put together a coherent response plan as quickly as possible in order to deal with the impact of the catastrophe.

At each company, my offer was welcomed and within one or two days we met. I began the conversation by discussing the impact of emotional trauma on psychological functioning in general, using as a model the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder response syndrome. We discussed the effects of emotional numbing, grieving, survivor guilt, ruminations about the earthquake and where each individual was when it occurred, difficulties people have about getting the impact of catastrophe out of their mind, nightmares in certain instances flashback, and the usual progression of symptoms from an emotional trauma. We discussed acute stress responses and chronic stress responses. Of great interest was the identification of employees who deserved an immediate therapeutic intervention and what constituted an adequate intervention under the circumstances.

This preliminary discussion began an ongoing discussion with human resources and the medical departments during the next month. I kept in touch with certain key individuals who welcomed my input. Each organization felt that it had a plan of action and each implemented its own plan for reaching out to employees and helping identify employees who were not recovering from the impact of the catastrophe. Certain individuals needed grief counseling whereas others developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder-like signs and symptoms; different individuals have different vulnerabilities, which was no surprise to anyone.

Interestingly, at the end of the day, I did not see any employees in consultation from these two companies for stress response syndrome symptoms. Each company had identified symptomatic individuals, made EAP available to them, and after working through the emotional response, the employees sustained work. One employer suffered the loss of three drivers who were crushed by the collapsing freeway and that employer conducted a memorial service for the dead employees as well as a reception afterwards. In each instance, the feedback I received later was that the companies did not have in place a crisis team to deal with such an event and one of the two companies put a crisis team into place, which remains intact to this day. Each of them told me that my inputs provided them a framework to build on in order to understand the consequences of catastrophes and what range of responses were available.

There are consulting organizations in place, which specifically address workplace catastrophes such as the shooting death of an employee. When there is a systemic catastrophe, those organizations are inadequate to deal with all the affected companies and so it is important for companies in general, I believe, to have plans in place to deal with workplace traumas.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided on this website does not constitute legal or medical advice. Readers should consult with their own legal counsel or physician for the most current information and to obtain professional legal advice or medical advice before acting on any of the information presented.

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