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First responders seek comfort following fatal incidents

Psychologist, chaplains on-hand to help Lodi emergency responders

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Posted: Saturday, October 26, 2013 12:00 am

When Lodi Police Sgt. Shad Canestrino rolled up to Tuesday’s multi-vehicle collision at Ham Lane and Vine Street, the first thing he saw was nurses and doctors already attending to lifeless little bodies.

He looked around and could instantly tell, due to the amount of damage, there was a high potential for major injuries.

On a nearby lawn in a makeshift triage area, medical personnel that had heard the crash and come pouring out of nearby doctors’ offices and Lodi Urgent Care were trying to help some of the victims — but Canestrino could tell that it was too late.

Back on the roadway, someone had already placed a yellow tarp over a body in a truck, signaling that the person underneath was already deceased. Other victims with terrible injuries were waiting for medical attention.

Those images will likely stick in Canastrino’s mind for months, maybe even years.

At a special debriefing Thursday, officers privately talked with each other and a psychologist about the images that have been replaying themselves constantly in their minds since Tuesday.

Many feel helpless that they couldn’t do more. Or maybe the young children they tried to help remind them of their own.

In incidents like the collision earlier this week that claimed the life of six, including Stephanie Miranda, 4; Jose Miranda, 5; Irving Miranda, 11; Luis Miranda, 30; and Vivian Rodriguez, 31, and her unborn child, Dr. Jocelyn Roland comes to the police station to bring everyone — including officers and volunteers — together to talk about how they’re feeling.

It’s likely others are feeling the same thing, but they may handle it differently.

“The ultimate goal is to give people a chance to talk openly about their experience and validate intense emotions that can arise due to a traumatic event,” said Roland, who handles the department’s psychology evaluations during the hiring process. Based in Modesto, she performs half a dozen to a dozen similar debriefings throughout the area annually.

“It’s helpful for them to hear other people, particularly for a group of people who seem like they can handle anything,” Roland said. “But seeing victims, particularly children, can have a toll on people.”

Chaplains lend an ear

Lodi police officers weren’t the only first responders on scene Tuesday. San Joaquin County Sheriff’s deputies will hold a similar debriefing next week.

Paramedics also receive psychological support, if needed.

In the past, a specially trained, in-house critical incident stress debriefing team worked alongside hospital personnel, law enforcement and paramedics to talk about facts and feelings related to calls like Tuesday’s, according to former American Medical Response supervisor Rick Keiser.

“It certainly takes a toll on not only the people who were on the call, but everyone else, because it becomes a part of your life,” he said of his experiences responding to accident scenes.

On more than one occasion, he had to pronounce people dead at the scene.

“Infants are almost always the hardest,” Keiser said. “You kind of come to accept that those things happen.”

Lodi police chaplains also attended Thursday’s debriefing, and were part of other discussions with both fire and police personnel directly after the incident.

The local volunteer pastors not only comfort parents, relatives and friends of victims in violent deaths, but assist officers with the emotional aftermath and comfort them in times of grieving and stress. They are on-call 24 hours a day.

Larry Beck, associate pastor at Bethel Open Bible Church and a police chaplain for more than 17 years, was called to the scene a couple of hours after the crash.

“In general, as a chaplain we get a sense of the scene: victims, citizens, first responders,” he said. “You come alongside them, asking questions but not getting in the way. We’re just there to give any support we can, whether it’s mental or physical.”

Beck and his fellow chaplains are always available to local first responders.

“We try to take care of them because they do so much for us,” Beck said. “We’re there if there’s anyone who just needs someone to talk to or spiritual counseling, whether it’s the officers, fire or even ambulance personnel. It’s emotional support and spiritual support when requested.”

Other first responders find support at home.

Sylvia Patten’s husband has been a Stockton firefighter for 14 years. He currently works in one of the top 20 fire stations in the nation, and shares as much as he can with his wife.

“They have to be a little tougher and figure out a way to make it bearable,” Patten said of firefighters in general. “But every once in awhile, you take it home. As much as they’re the ones who are doing the jobs, it takes a special spouse ... to be the backbone to that person.”

Every December, her husband either works Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and every year he calls to ask if his children are in bed yet. One year, an 11-year-old hanged himself.

“He called and asked me to wake up the kids so he could tell them he loved them,” Patten said. “You have to reassure them that everything’s fine.”

Although their children are 11 and 14 and no longer ride in child carseats themselves, their firefighter father is fanatic about the special seats, as he’s seen too many vehicle accidents where they were installed wrong or a child wasn’t riding in one at all.

Like their own children

Emergency calls involving children are the worst for her husband, Patten said, especially when there has been a suicide.

“Their job is just done,” she said of times when there is nothing lifesavers can do. “It’s the hardest thing, to live with someone who is always trying to fix things. And when they see something they can’t fix, it’s hard because they’re not built the way the rest of us are.”

All she can do is be a supportive listener, she said, holding back tears.

“I’m a firefighter’s wife. I’m doing my job. Home is his safe haven where he doesn’t have to fix everything,” Patten said.

Canestrino said everyone deals with traumatic scenes differently, but most appreciate talking about it with people who understand.

“You never know how someone is going to deal with the graphic nature of a homicide or accident scene until you throw them into it,” he said.

His first experience was a drowning at Lodi Lake when he was still in training. Back then, as he does now, the 17-year veteran thought of the body as a vessel where a person once resided. He believes he owes it to the deceased to deal with the body as evidence, and to review the case as well as possible.

“The hard part is when the family is there and crying,” he said.

Or when the scene involves a child — such as when a toddler was killed by a van near Hale Park several years ago.

“At the time, my youngest was about the same age,” said Canestrino, who has two young children. “You go from spending time with your children on the holiday, to being with a family during a tragic time like this. You can’t help but think about your own kids. There’s a part of you that hopes your kids are safe and sound.”

Roland, the psychologist, said that is normal — especially when incidents involve children, because of their innocence and inability to care for themselves.

She’s had people tell her that while they were doing CPR on a child, they would look down and see their own offspring.

“It’s what haunts their dreams,” she said. “When there’s chaos, there isn’t time for the emotional experience. That has to be tucked away for later ... but it can’t stay shoved down forever. You can’t have that stuff running around in your head waiting for the next call, because there will be a next time.”

She hopes she can help people deal with the issue so they can go back to doing their jobs.

Following Tuesday’s incident, Canestrino said anyone on-scene with children who didn’t admit to going home afterward and hugging their kids a bit tighter isn’t telling the truth.

“This could have been my kids. We live in town and my wife is always driving my kids around,” Canestrino said, turning his attention back toward Tuesday’s crash.

“You have a family going through an intersection doing their own thing, and just like that an entire family is just about wiped off the face of the earth,” he said. “I think there’s a part of you that knows that could have happened to you.”

Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at jenniferb@lodinews.com.

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