Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Guest editorial: Opportunities for healing follow grief, terror of Soldotna hospital shooting

On this Thanksgiving Day 2008, I am mindful of the opening sentence from Charles Dickens’ “The Tale of Two Cities,” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Yesterday, the community around Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna experienced the worst of times and must now create the best of times as we all heal and move forward.

I was an observer throughout the day with three visits to the hospital. After we lifted the lockdown of the Borough Building, I went to the hospital to provide support wherever possible. As I entered the Emergency area, shock was ever present as I was shown the result of the dark event which had transpired. Gun casings were marked with tape and were ever present in the hallways, bullet holes through many walls, blood-stained handprints.

The professionals at the hospital were working to restore sanity, mend the physically wounded and respond to the countless decisions to be made as the hospital remained both a crime scene and a working center of healing. Stories and events were being relived and all were praying for the two victims in surgery. As I left the hospital, a most worried husband drove into the parking lot because his wife worked in the hospital. After he told me his last name, I assured him that his wife was safe.

I returned to the Borough Building to assure all that we were safe and met with the school district officials to keep them informed and end the lockdown of our schools imposed when the gunman left the hospital, after the shootings inside, and was on the loose with his terrible weapon.

I then returned to the hospital, where I was escorted back to the Administrative Center and listened as stories of terror were relived. Individuals helping the wounded while under attack, a jammed rifle that saved a probable victim, hiding under a desk as bullets were coming through the walls, turning over a table for shelter and realizing that bullets would pass through it, thoughts of not wanting to die as bullets are flying, and being shown a desk chair with a bullet hole through it and thankfulness that the office occupant was at a meeting.

At the same time, observing the most thorough and helpful law enforcement personnel as they explained a crime scene unit was leaving Anchorage and everything possible must be kept untouched. Shocked staff were finding the names and addresses of the next of kin of the shooter, writing a news release for the community, helping each other to get back on task, and, always, praying for the victims in surgery and thankfulness that more had not been wounded. Then, a surgery nurse reporting, “Mike had not made it through.”

I was back three hours later and observed the mental health professionals and chaplain teams as they were assisting the unwounded wounded and teaching them how begin to process their trauma and prepare them to help others.

The mental health professionals stressed our need for each other, our need to listen to each other, our need to talk about our feelings regarding the events of the tragedy and the absolute fact that everyone will process this dark event with stress reactions which may be on the physical, cognitive, emotional and/or behavioral level. Everyone must discuss their reactions and let this dark event face the brightness of our normal life, our loved ones, and our normal events.

This morning (Sunday) at church, the clergy member directed those attending, especially the children, to hug everyone five times. He said, “Hugging, helps healing.” I like to think that the five hugs are for physical, cognitive, emotional, behavioral and spiritual healing as we experience our lives together after this terrible tragedy.

As we carry Thanksgiving Day 2008 forward throughout the rest of this year, please focus on the brightness of thanksgiving to lighten the darkness of this event. Please hug the many, many people who work at or near the hospital and their families. Please hug the law enforcement and emergency services personnel who dealt with this event and deal with them daily.

Please hug any mental health professionals and many teams of chaplains who work at healing throughout our community. And, please hug your family and speak prayers of thankfulness, so that this worst of days can be transformed by our best of days.

Dave Carey is mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, elected in October. He is the former mayor of Soldotna.

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