Not in the Driver’s Seat

For the last two weeks I’ve written about a recent accident that left me slightly injured and totaled my Corvette.  I experienced trauma that day, with its classic symptoms and aftermath, and I’ve shared some of my thoughts and realizations following the event.

Now, in order to give you a fuller understanding of the experience of trauma, I want to share another, much more serious traumatic incident that took place in June of 2008.  That may sound like a long time ago, but my memories of that night remain overwhelmingly vivid.  On this occasion, I was not the primary victim of trauma – not the person directly experiencing the crisis.  I was what is called the “secondary victim” – the person who observes someone else’s suffering – and who is connected to them either as a professional first-responder, or as a loved one or bystander who may be reduced to watching helplessly as horrific events unfold.

Late on a Wednesday evening, after coming home from a business meeting, my wife, Lynn, and I were relaxing in front of the television.  Lynn got up to leave the room and then returned shortly after, stumbling and semi-conscious.  As I sprang up to catch her fall, she collapsed into my arms.

As with so many traumatic events, it all happened so quickly.  One moment Lynn was fine, the next moment everything was completely out of control and I could tell she was near death.  I was terrified.  There was nothing I could do except hold her and love her in what I thought could be her last minutes of life.  The intensity of fear I felt inside was like normal fear times a hundred.  The velocity and intensity of my emotions felt like an engine that was racing with absolutely explosive power.

In that moment, I felt the full, overwhelming impact of the trauma.  I went into “hyperalert”; I didn’t disassociate, I didn’t mentally go away or numb out.  I needed to get help.  I couldn’t do everything myself, couldn’t both hold her and get to a phone and call 911, all at the same time.  I shouted to my son, who made the phone call, and within three minutes some fabulous people arrived to save us.  These fire and EMT personnel saw us in that naked moment, in our most vulnerable state, with tremendous compassion.  They did a wonderful, sensitive, and professional job of stabilizing Lynn and getting her to the hospital.

I believe in miracles, because Lynn came back to me as quickly as she started to go.  She went through all the tests at Petaluma Valley Hospital’s emergency room and she was fine.  What happened was just one of those freak medical episodes.  She recovered quickly and I felt such intense relief and gratitude to have her alive and with me. To this day, Lynn and I are very close friends with the Two Rock volunteer fire department crew who came to our rescue and who told us how very touched they were by the love and commitment they saw Lynn and I share.

Lynn’s emergency was a much more significant trauma than my car accident.  There is really no comparison.  But I want to use both these experiences – one in which I suffered the trauma, and one where I could only look on helplessly – to share some of my understandings about primary and secondary trauma and its victims.  I have other lessons I want to share from this earlier, most frightening and intense crisis.  I’ll make some of these insights part of my next post.