Thursday, June 24, 2010

Do Not Become a Casualty Yourself

Anyone who's ever had any kind of emergency training at all has heard some version of the same speech.  "Before you try to help," it goes, "make sure that you yourself can assist safely.  Do not become a casualty yourself."  In a Red Cross CPR class, this comes in the form of the reminder to "Check, Call, Care," that is, check to make sure it's safe before you do anything else.  In a lifesaving swim class, it takes the form of "Reach or throw, don't go," meaning don't get into the water if you can help the struggling swimmer any other way.  CISM has a similar principle, usually expressed along the lines of, "If the incident is personal for you, get someone else."

I bring this up because on Tuesday I was assisting with a response and became a casualty myself, although not, perhaps, in the way you would think.

Earlier this week, a family from Ann Arbor was involved in a major car accident in Virginia.  The mother, Theresa Supica, and one of the daughters, Samantha, were killed, and two other daughters are in the hospital.  The girl who was killed was a student at Slauson Middle School in Ann Arbor, where I am the training coordinator for the CISM teams.  Tuesday night, the team leader for that part of the district had organized a crisis management briefing and general get together for the middle school community as well as the associated elementary schools and the high school the sisters attend.  It was outside on a large patio in front of the middle school.  She asked me to attend as one of the supporting members of the team, which I was happy to do.

Tuesday was a pretty hot and humid day in Ann Arbor.  After work I went to a weight lifting class and, despite the air conditioning, we were all sweating profusely.  About three quarters of the way through the class I started to feel somewhat nauseous, so I sat out in the hallway (where it was a little cooler) for the end of class and felt much better.  I hopped in my car and headed towards Slauson, about 10 minutes away.

Half way there, my stomach started to feel icky again.  I realized I probably should stop driving, and that I wasn't going to be much use at the CMB.  My cell phone was dead, so I thought I'd get to Slauson and find someone I knew to call my husband to come get me.  I pulled into the parking lot, got out of the car, sat down in the grass near my car and, not seeing anyone I knew in the immediate vicinity, flagged down a stranger who was just arriving.

I don't know what I looked like at this point, but it can't have been good, because the woman immediately looked alarmed and said, "What's wrong?"  I asked her to call my husband, and she went to get her cell phone out of her car.  By the time she returned, I was vomiting in the grass, breathing very heavily and losing feeling in my hands.  The woman called 911.

At this point I was pretty much doing a face plant in the grass.  I could hear everyone and I knew what was going on, but I couldn't move and felt just ghastly.  I could hear the woman trying to give directions to where we were, estimating my age ("middle aged" -- I was a little disheartened) and asking if I'd ever had a stroke "before."  When the paramedics arrived and got me onto the stretcher, I was shocked to see that quite a crowd had gathered.  It hadn't occurred to me that I was causing such a ruckus.

To make what is already a long story a little shorter, after 5 hours in the ER and all sorts of tests, the only thing wrong with me was dehydration.  I should know better.  Apparently, however, I don't.  I was embarrassed to have caused such a scene. 

More than anything, however, I knew that I had caused a scene in a place where people did not need more drama.  A community reeling from the sudden death of one of its own does not need the image of a relatively young (OK, middle aged), relatively healthy person being wheeled into an ambulance.  They don't need to hear sirens.  They are working on believing that the world is a safe place once again, and my little episode underlined that maybe it isn't.

To the friends, neighbors, teachers and family of Samantha Supica, I send my heartfelt apologies.  I became a casualty myself.  You have my deepest sympathies and my sincerest regrets.  Thank you for helping me when I should have been helping you.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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