The Way of My Healing from PTSD

As a hospital chaplain I often saw trauma; as a writer I’m healing from it.

I was surrounded by a magnificent fall afternoon that day, last November. The air was fresh, like it had just settled after a breeze. There was a chill in the air too — the kind of chill you dread the thought of in July, but look back on fondly in January.

I had just stepped out of my Prius in the Superfresh parking lot and was walking toward the store, enjoying shades of the season in the maple and birch trees circling the lot, and hoping the post-work grocery store lines wouldn’t be too long. All of a sudden a familiar, dreadful sound filled the air. I felt betrayed by the clear, blue sky that allowed me such a perfect view of the source — a royal blue helicopter with a white stripe down the side. I know the markings well. The blades from the LifeFlight helicopter sliced through the air as it made its way east along the flight path to Hershey Medical Center.

My reaction to the sight and sound of a medevac suddenly bursting into my space has become programmed. My eyes fix on it, longer than anyone around me who hears the whirring sound and looks up. I look at it … wishing it would disappear from view and, at the same time, wondering who’s on board. Is it an accident victim? Maybe someone who had a sudden, massive heart attack? I close my eyes. Then, as if the swirling air from the blades sucks me in, I’m transported back to the Hershey Medical Center Emergency Room, to April 6, 2008, where, as the on-call chaplain, I stood and waited with the medical team for the LifeFlight helicopter, which was en route with a two year-old girl who had been severely-beaten by her mother’s boyfriend.

As doctors and nurses prepared the trauma room, I stood just outside in the hallway with more nurses and a social worker. I thought about offering a prayer. It seemed, to me, what an experienced, confident chaplain would do. I was not that chaplain — only seven months into training, and, even more of a hindrance, lacking the self-assurance to suggest a prayer in that moment. I wanted to be that person … who would try to bring a sense of peace and calm to an air of anxious anticipation. Who better than the Chaplain? I felt it right there within me. If I had moved an inch or said a word in that direction it would have been done. But I couldn’t bring myself to it. So I pressed my back up against the wall and waited and tried to imagine what a two year-old who’s been beaten looks like. As if I could. I tried to prepare myself. As if I could. And I thought back five months, to November 2007, and another on-call shift, when I kept vigil with a family in the final hours of their baby’s life. I was present when Tito took his final breath. Oh God … not another child.

Then I heard it. We all did. The growing sound of rotors. I felt a very slight vibration as the helicopter approached an “X” on the landing pad. From inside the hospital the sound of the blades was muffled. It was two sounds really — an intermittent whirring, along with a steady, low-pitched hum.

Closer. Louder. Landing. Louder still. Engine’s cut. The blades stop. Hurried, but skilled, movement begins, and a gurney, flanked on each side by a doctor, nurse, and flight medic, is whisked in. The rest of us quickly flow into Trauma B behind it.

A trunk lid is slammed shut in the Superfresh lot, and I’m jerked out of my flashback. I mouth, Be with them, Lord, as my eyes continue to follow the helicopter, disappearing into the eastern sky.

Even as I keep walking toward the store, my gait slower, I’m trying to decide if I still have it in me to go inside and deal with picking bananas, deciding which tomatoes look plumper, and asking if the tilapia is fresh. Or has the flashback done me in. I just keep walking. I pick up the pace. The store gets closer. The shoppers get louder. The flashback fades.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

This is the way of my healing from PTSD. The memories haven’t disappeared, but when they do come, they gradually fade back into the normal course of my day, my life. And it’s a good life, made richer by faith, family, friends, often-failed attempts at regular exercise, dogs, books, and writing.

Recently, in the course of reflecting and writing, I made a decision: to accept that for me being healed isn’t going to mean being all healed (and, in my mind, being all healed means being free of every horrible memory from the hospital trauma cases I had been involved in). I had never before considered that anything less than complete healing could be a triumph. But once I made that decision — that I didn’t have to be all healed — I felt the repose of a weight being lifted from my shoulders. That decision meant I could stop fighting and struggling to wipe every bad memory from my mind, probably an impossible goal in the first place. Ridding myself of those memories wasn’t going to happen, and I was suddenly okay with that. Ironically, my acceptance of less healing let me feel more healed than ever before. I felt renewed. I felt energized. I felt able to go on with my life … and to write … about the experiences that started me on this healing journey.

Postscript:

I wish I could tell you otherwise, but the story of the two year-old girl, Darisabel Leanna Baez, has a tragic ending. Darisabel died one day later, on April 7, 2008 . She was cared for with great love at both York Hospital and Hershey Medical Center, and will never be forgotten.

Harve Johnson was convicted of murder in her death, and is on death row in a Pennsylvania prison.