Quake Trauma: Team Works to Help Haiti Heal

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PIGNON, Haiti - Nahomi Eugene's walk to work is a short distance from her home in Pignon, Haiti. But the daily journey has felt longer since Jan. 11 -- the last day she got a good night's rest.

"Sometimes you are just trying to forget about it," said Eugene, a 27-year-old interpreter. "But it just comes right back to your mind."

Jan. 12 marked the day a 7.0 magnitude earthquake reduced Port au Prince to rubble, killing her uncle and more than 250,000 others.

Pignon is about 85 miles north of Port au Prince. The roads there are so rough and rocky, it's actually smoother to travel by donkey than by car. But its distance from Port au Prince was not enough for the area to escape the emotional impact of January's earthquake.

"I would go like, 'Is it in my mind?' or 'What's going on with me?'" Eugene said, recalling her sleepless nights.

Post-Traumatic Stress

Eugene is not alone in her restlessness. It has been a long six months for earthquake survivors and many are healing physically, but the emotional recovery is just beginning.

A team from Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., is training counselors to treat those Haitians struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.

"They have assimilated to the trauma because life goes on and they have had to adapt," explained Dr. Benjamin Keyes who leads the team. "But all the memories of what went on, and all the things that they saw have never been talked about because in this country people just don't do that."

First Response Trauma Team

Keyes and his team are spending a week in Pignon to help victims discuss what they are going through.

"Knowing that we were trained to treat trauma, I wanted to come and I had a burden for the people, even after it moved from the front page of the newspaper," Regent graduate Vernicia Eure said. "I really wanted to come, and I asked God to help me keep Haiti in my heart."

Runell Washington, also a member of the trauma team, remembers watching the tragedy unfold on television.

"That kind of broke my heart to have this magnitude of devastation happen to a people and it only remain hot in the news for about a week-and-a-half or two weeks and then we were on to something else," she said. "I felt like that cry was so loud and the devastation so treacherous that we should have paid more attention and paid attention longer."

The university's work will continue in Haiti long after the trauma team leaves. Workers are counseling church leaders and also training them to treat people suffering with PTSD.

A Heart to Help Their Own

"It just amazes me every time just how much they desire to help their own people," Ryan Calhoun, another Regent volunteer, said. "They are coming here and many of them have been through several tragedies themselves, but they want to know how they can help others. They want to learn these counseling skills and take them out into their communities."

A pastor who lost his wife and children in the earthquake walks four hours to the training sessions in Pignon to learn how to help the people in his congregation.

"This is just a strong area in need and a strong area for God because here they are in the midst of this trauma and they want to reach out to each other," Keyes said. "And it's been quite a blessing."

Dr. Merrill Reese also helps lead the Regent University team.

"I would say based on the symptoms that we are hearing, [survivors] are finally coming through the shock stage and the numbing," Reese explained. "The realization that our lives have totally changed [is settling] so the timing for me couldn't be any better. It's like perfect timing."

Reason to Celebrate

Timing was critical for Pastor Jephthé Lucien, who invited the team of counselors to travel to Haiti. The earthquake triggered trauma in his 13-year-old adopted daughter so much she had to be hospitalized.

"As a father, it's been really painful," he said. "Personally for me, I have been preaching and sharing with people what they need to do when they are in a crisis. So I find out that it is easier to talk about it than go through it."

His daughter's weight dropped from 115 pounds to 62 pounds in just a matter of months. There had been no medical explanation for her weight loss until Dr. Keyes paid a visit.

"After he talked to her, he said that this was a classic case of anorexia," Lucien recalled. "But there is no way that us and our limited knowledge could have found that out."

Keyes was able to help diagnose the problem and get the girl better help.

"We have been able to get her to the University of Miami facility in Port au Prince," Keyes said. "She has two excellent surgeons from Miami. She is working with a psychologist and a nutritionist and what they are saying is that physically she is going to be well."

The days and months ahead are still critical, but Regent University trauma workers are giving the people of Pignon a reason to celebrate and worship God daily.

"Truly God is here at every corner, just waiting to reveal Himself. And not only is He waiting to do it, He is doing it," Reese said. "It is just exciting to be a part of."

*Originally published July 8, 2010.

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Efrem Graham

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Efrem Graham is an award-winning journalist, who comes to CBN News from the ABC owned and operated station in Toledo, Ohio.  He received his master's degree from the Columbia University Journalism School. He also holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.  Follow Efrem on Twitter @EfremGraham and "like" him at Facebook.com/EfremGrahamCBN.