OTTAWA (CCN) — Whether it’s a train crash, a building collapse, or a pandemic, the Ottawa Hospital is ready to provide spiritual help through a team of volunteers for those affected.
The hospital’s Emergency Spiritual Care Assistance Team (ESCAT) is the first of its kind in North America. Its recently published guide has been requested by more than 25 other hospitals in Canada and the United States, said ESCAT leader Rev. Nicolas El-Kada, a Maronite Catholic priest who is the hospital’s Clinical Pastoral Education Co-ordinator.
El-Kada said the literature shows for each medical casualty in a disaster or emergency, there are four to 500 “psycho-social spiritual casualties who need spiritual support.”
“A disaster is always chaotic,” said El-Kada. But training can help people respond to “high demand” challenges. “Everyone is screaming for help: how are you going to deal with it?”
“A crowd of people might all be in need of support for medical, psychological, social and/or spiritual needs,” he said.
The team, composed of hospital chaplains, spiritual leaders and volunteers from a range of religious faiths, is trained to intervene as a group and not as individuals, El-Kada said.
They learn about the phases of an emergency and what spiritual interventions are appropriate at each stage; they learn the
language spoken by first responders — fire fighters, police, the army, various levels of government — to facilitate communication and a more effective intervention, he said.
The ESCAT volunteers learn what symptoms are common among people who have experienced a disaster, such as anxiety, fear, distress, feeling numb, and confusion, for example — and how to identify “red flags” if a person’s reaction is extreme and could become impairing or lead to PTSD or an anxiety disorder in the future, El-Kada said.
Part of the course involves dealing with a mock disaster such as a building collapse, and asking the trainees to imagine how they would handle various scenarios, such as someone becoming angry and violent after hearing he or she has lost a loved one.
“An intervention in a disaster situation is different than the intervention with someone going through a life struggle,” he said. “A wrong intervention might worsen the survivor’s condition. We talk about psychological first aid.”
“These interventions need to be tailored to the needs of each survivor,” he said.
A key is helping a person find their own strength and recovering their resilience, he said. Sometimes when a person experiences a disaster, they go into shock. “We think we have lost it all, when in fact we haven’t lost it all.”
Some of that involves helping people “find a source of calmness and connectedness,” and to help them connect with their own sense of transcendental reality, he said. “In the Catholic context, I would say God.”
ESCAT has a box of sacred objects and books, such as Bibles, rosary beads, Qur’ans, prayer cards, spiritual medals, religious objects to help survivors find that “source of calmness.”
The hospital started to develop the program in 2009 when the H1N1 virus threatened a worldwide pandemic. “Thank God, we didn’t need it!” El-Kada said.
But by the time H1N1 petered out, the ESCAT planners decided not to wait for another emergency or disaster before building the program into what it is today.
Since, H1N1, ESCAT has been activated three times: in 2011, after explosion at a local Catholic high school killed a student; in 2013, after a double-decker bus crashed into a train, killing six and injuring many more; and in 2014, after a shooter killed a soldier at the War Memorial, then rampaged through Centre Block on Parliament Hill.
At the 2011 explosion at Mother Teresa High School, there was one death, but the hospital had to deal with about 125 psycho-social casualties, El-Kada said.
Key to the program is the involvement, even at a leadership level, of local faith communities, he said. “It’s not like you train a team and parachute them in.”
ESCAT members agree to make themselves available should an emergency arise, and undergo a three days of training.