October 9, 2015
On April 4, 1991, I was halfway finished with a yearlong chaplain training program at UC-Davis Medical Center when a social worker approached me with news.
“Our team is on standby tonight,” she whispered. She meant our Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Team, which was specially trained to debrief people who witness horrific incidents.
“Why?” I asked.
“You better catch the news,” she said, pointing toward a waiting room of people watching television. The special report conveyed the early hours of what is still the largest hostage crisis on American soil.
After botching the robbery of a Sacramento electronics store, four men were using hostages as human shields, laying them in front of full-length windows in view of news cameras. They promised to begin executing hostages if they weren’t given safe passage to Thailand.
Eight hours into the crisis, police attempted to end it with a sniper, concussive grenades and tear gas. The barrage killed three robbers and wounded a fourth, but not before the suspects killed three hostages and wounded 11 more.
The seriously wounded were taken to our trauma unit. After they received good medical care, our debriefing team tried to get them to talk about their trauma. Doing this within 24 hours of the incident was supposed to help victims more quickly return to normal living.
With that in mind, I approached a young man who lay on a hallway gurney awaiting X-rays. I introduced myself to him and to his petite wife beside him.
As it turned out, he was a Baptist seminary student from my alma mater. We’d had the same theology professors, so I wasn’t surprised when his survivor’s guilt took a theological twist.
He told me that he had felt divine protection while mayhem exploded around him. He was thankful God saved him, but, “Why hadn’t God saved everyone?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, trying to delay his theological analysis. “I can only consider what will happen now.” I was making an effort to redirect the conversation off the circular path of “why” to the more constructive question, “Where to from here?”
I wanted him to focus on his resiliency as a future minister. To do that, he had to look past this day and see a day when he’d complete his training and pursue his calling.
“Where to from here?” is the question we all must ask ourselves when tragedy strikes. What will I become from here? Will I become so mired in this tragic moment that my whole life is defined by it? Will people always know me as the guy whose home was lost in the flood? Or the one whose child died? Or the man who was shot in the store?
Or will I become the person who overcame?
The future pastor would have to answer those questions on another day, but at that moment, I could only hint at what was coming.
I wrapped up our talk with the scripted debrief question: “What was the worst part of your ordeal?”
“The worst part was when the robber stuck a gun in my face and asked if I wanted to die,” he said.
“That must be hard to hear,” I reflected to his wife.
She didn’t answer. She simply looked at the ceiling and fainted into my arms.
Fortunately, like her husband, she was resilient. She recovered quickly and remained with her husband throughout the evening. I wasn’t so lucky.
I had ignored hospital training to never catch the dead weight of a fainting person. I wrenched by back and was out of work the rest of the week.
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