11th September 2001: a fateful morning that took the lives of 3,000 Americans and people from other nationalities. Terror, violence, and panic were present across New York City. For first care responders who moved quickly, provided services to save as many lives as possible and put their own lives at risk, the years after brought consequences, including severe trauma, pain, depression, and anxiety.
Thomas Demaria, a psychiatrist from New York City, has specialised in treating firefighters, police officers, and their families since the 9/11 attacks. ‘After that kind of mass tragedy, it is complicated for people to keep functioning for themselves. Especially because what they are going through is unique. So, they require proper treatment and a support group to get to know other people that understand what they are going through,’ he shares.
Healing then becomes more complex because ‘…you cannot get away from it. You see it every year on the news, radio, print media … so it is hard to escape from it,’ he says. For a lot of them, ‘it was a long journey to accept that they needed help … they were just doing their job.’
As the clinical director of Home Ground 9/11 First Responder Alliance, Dr Demaria has developed innovative approaches to help them cope, regain their lives, and assist their families too. His project combines both therapy and bonding-related activities. They started sharing meals, playing games, and most importantly, spending time with people who went through a similar situation to create a safe space and make it easier for these men “to let go the strong emotions they had inside slowly,’ he says.
For a while, they were surrounded by a community that was anxious from the terrorist attacks. So, they felt both frightened and isolated. ‘Nobody understood what they were going through. Except for another person that was going through the same situation. With the help of treatment facilitators, it can help a lot to cover that wound at some degree.’
Additionally, several first care responders developed various cancers or other serious health problems due to the chemicals and dust to which they were exposed that day. ‘A lot of them had to retire, and this was challenging for them,’ he adds.
Dr Demaria says that they do not like to be seen as heroes; this is a term that makes them uncomfortable, and ‘if you ask them if they would do it again, most of them say yes,’ he says.
With the men, especially the sick ones, Dr Demaria has got them to write a legacy narrative. ‘They dictate it to me; I type it for them, and eventually, they will share it with their loved ones.’ Through this type of storytelling technique, ‘I not only encourage them to feel like a super person but help them put into words the pain they feel,’ he says.
Following the 9/11 attacks, Dr Demaria has been recognised by the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies for his clinical work related to first care responders and their families. ‘It is extremely satisfying for me to know that I am helping them cope healthily, with what they lived 20 years ago.’
Isabella Rolz is a freelance journalist from New York.
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