By Teresa Cutts
The inaugural See2See Road Trip conducted by Stakeholder Health ended Wednesday, at the waters of beautiful Wrightsville Beach of Wilmington, NC. This odyssey started on the other coast of San Diego, by another great body of water. We learned that what appears as two oceans is really one, just as we saw there is one deep well of caring for others on each coast and every stop in between. This is sharply in focus around disasters we call natural. It was especially poignant and compelling to know that while the compassion they call out is so ubiquitous as to be “natural” these are disasters we can help.
On the west coast, the wildfires that decimated Paradise, California, were heavy on all our partners’ hearts and spirits. Virtually every staff member at Loma Linda had friends or families touched by the fires that took almost a hundred lives. Our colleague Jerry Winslow, of the Adventist Loma Linda system, told of the heroics of their Paradise staff at Feather River hospital. Many of those staff risked their lives to make sure all of the patients and others were escorted to safety, often driving people out in their personal vehicles and returning repeatedly to make sure no one was left behind. Twenty percent of the hospital itself was destroyed by the flames. Jerry had only recently officiated at the wedding of one of the couples whose family lost all.
Heroes in New Hanover
On the other coast, New Hanover hospital staff shared deeply about their Hurricane Florence and post-flooding experiences, with similar compassion, heroics and tragedy noted. In Wilmington, NC, heroic chaplaincy, paramedic, nursing staff and administrators offered both heart-wrenching and heart-warming stories of how they “ministered in place” at the New Hanover hospital for over a week. Horrific flooding occurred in the area as Hurricane Florence dumped tons of rain, blocking roads and destroying homes, often those of staff who were stoically caring for patients inside the hospital. Hundreds of staff at New Hanover had major damages and/or losses to their own homes and properties, yet they looked away from their own losses to meet the needs of others. This makes for holidays mingled with shocking loss and deep pride that they were indeed the people their neighbors needed.
During her first week as a chaplain resident, a young woman from Wilmington was literally immersed from day one of her first semester pastoral care experience as she worked on site for eight days. Another chaplain came in for the second “shift” to relieve her colleagues on day nine, fresh off post-surgical recovery. A staff member at New Hanover and four family members lost their homes, recently purchased after a move from the northeast and, as if that was not enough, found out a relative had a cancer diagnosis. Yet, this lady was more concerned about how she could help others in her role at the hospital than worrying about her own stressors. One elderly man from the coast had been clearing debris after the storm and got what seemed to be a minor cut on his leg. By the time he made it to the hospital, his bacterial infection, contracted through exposure from waters polluted with a toxic brew, had spread to the point that it eventually killed him. Another chaplain resident heard himself trying to comfort patients in the hospital by talking about going home when they no longer had homes to which to return.
Staff struggled to hold back tears as they leaned in to listen intently to sad and heroic stories of staff, patients, local churches and everyone banding together to work through the acute crisis. Everyone knows that this is a “marathon, not a sprint”—the flood waters will continue to impact their city and area. Still fresh from that mid-September disaster, the staff shared these stories with raw and unpolished empathy and passion; the proximity and enormity still tender, the stories powerful and authentic.
New Hanover staff related with gratitude and humility how other health systems and people, both from North Carolina counties and from all across the country helped, sending in their own corporate planes at no charge, carrying extra personnel or supplies. The phone and Zoom contact between the staff who were outside during the height of the storm and their colleagues on drier ground was key to helping everyone remain grounded themselves. Staying connected, even with just a few precious minutes of cell phone time as their batteries died, helped them reset as a stronger team, both inside and outside of the hospital. Throughout the ordeal, staff related how life-changing the event was for them all, as they saw with new clarity how uncontrollable life and events could be.
A wave of compassion and love
As we listened to New Hanover’s staff witness about caring for others, themselves, patients and neighbors, I imagined a huge wave of compassion and love. That wave extends from California wildfire country all the way across our nation to the flooded low country of the Carolinas, combatting and healing the trauma and wounds of our times from both natural and not-so-natural disasters, like mass shootings, unnecessary opioid deaths, or children being wrenched from their parents at our border. From our work in adverse childhood experiences and trauma, we know that the most healing force to help people heal and cope is that connection with another caring human. Those caring humans were found in every stop of our See2See tour.
The Road Trip had its fun and trivial moments bouncing our way in a ridiculous Winnebago across our nation, still astonishing despite its troubles. But what we saw and those we encountered in the 25 sites we visited and whose work we observed was rich in it’s detail that testified to the big story. I began to see these common heroes as Warriors of compassion and love and valor.
A few miles north of El Paso we stood in line in a Chick-fil-A next to some soldiers who had been cynically deployed as a political signal of fear against those who come to our nation in desperation. Meanwhile, civilians of every sort show valor as they stand in the gap for our most vulnerable with a deep thirst and desire to share and deliver healing and justice across our nation. We offer them our deepest thanks and honor.
As we digest on our journey we will try to tell their stories more deeply on the Stakeholder Health site so that we might learn how to be braver and better healers ourselves. We felt those seeds stir within us, called alive by the witness of a quiet compassionate wave from coast-to-coast. The very opposite of proud bombast, we heard the unmistakable invitation to us all: together heal our land.