Sheriff's Office chaplain explains how to deal with trauma

Geyer (Carroll County Times)

While Pat Geyer is a crisis intervention specialist for the Carroll County Sheriff's Office, she also is part of a chaplaincy program called the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team.

After emergent situations that involve trauma, Geyer is often deployed to different areas of the country to assist in the immediate aftermath survivors face. Most recently, Geyer traveled to Newtown, Conn., to help both families of those who lost children at Sandy Hook Elementary School and emergency personnel on the ground.

Geyer and her husband, Dick, recently paired together for a book called "Chaplains of the Bible: inspiration for those who help others in crisis," which can be found on Amazon.com.

The Times talked to Geyer about her experience as a chaplain, how to handle grief in a traumatizing situation, and how her job at the sheriff's office helps the community as a whole.

Q: When did you decide to go up to Sandy Hook?

A: I didn't decide, I was activated and told that they could use me to go about three days after the incident. And I knew that was a possibility and I pretty much was prepared for whatever ... I'm a Rapid Response Team Chaplain and I do national, and in one case international, disaster chaplaincy, and I'm a crisis interventionist chaplain. I went beyond just chaplain and I trained to and [am] certified to help an assist people in trauma and crisis. That's how I got connected to the Rapid Response Team.

Q: So where else have you been for areas or tragedies that you've had to respond to?

A: I've been to 16 so far - Newtown, Conn.; Haiti, Alabama, various tornadoes, Hurricane Ike, ice storms, Katrina. It started with Katrina. That's when I got the call [from God] to be a chaplain, and I decided that was what I was going to do.

Q: Whenever you're there, who are the people who you're focused on helping? Are they some of the victims or are they the police officers?

A: Actually, it started out in my chaplaincy just working with the victims, or we like to think of them as survivors, because it gives them a positive future and hope. But as I progressed and excelled in different areas and trained more, I realized that law enforcement was something I was interested in, so I started with the Carroll County Sheriff's Office, and that moved me into another level of chaplaincy. So I became certified in law enforcement emergency services and pastoral care chaplaincy. So I work with both the survivors, victims and the law enforcement officers, any emergency services personnel, whether it's a doctor or a fireman. My heart and passion are in the survivors and law enforcement.

Q: What were some of the takeaways from Newtown?

A: That was tragedy unlike any other tragedy I had worked, or disaster. Because it was an entire community, it was children who were innocent, it was teachers who were absolutely huge heroes, because they gave their life for those kids and they did phenomenal things trying to protect them. The grief that came out of that massacre, which is what it was, to the families was beyond anything I had ever seen ever before. And the effect that it had on law enforcement was horrific. It changed lives in ways that other traumas we've gone through had not changed lives because it was innocent babies, really.

Q: What was the change that you saw in law enforcement?

A: The graphic detail that they had to see, and without going into that - it would be inappropriate for me to do that - but the graphic information that we were told painted very clear pictures of what they had personally and traumatically experienced themselves. Knowing that they had to go home at some point, and they had their own children, their own babies, and that's a very personal thing. And that's what it's like for all law enforcement. They are not unaffected by what they experience in their work just because they wear a gun and a badge and a uniform.

Q: So what are some of the lessons from that particular kind of grief that can be carried over into what's happening right now in Boston?

A: First of all, it's a tragedy that should've never happened. It was not required or necessary. It was cruel and sick and very heinous. That causes an added layer of trauma to the families or the individuals that were involved in it or had loved ones involved in it, because it makes it difficult for people to process the psychological part of their mind and their life. It rocks the ground of security that we all think we live on. When it hits us on our own home base, whether it's in our country or where we're visiting, what we anticipated to be a safe day turns into a living nightmare. So that shakes everything in your life.

Q: What kind of advice can you give for somebody who goes through these kinds of horrific incidents?

A: Number one, seek out someone you can trust, or that is being provided to you that is experienced and trained in the area of crisis. A family member, a close friend, a pastor, a chaplain, a crisis interventionist, a critical incident stress team management person ... seek someone like that out because what you need most is not to have it explained to you. You don't need someone to patronize you. You need someone to silently, if necessary, be there for what we call the "ministry of presence." And that's simply someone to wrap their arms around you or sit next to you or hold your hand and be there with you while you're going through the trauma. We call that the ministry of presence, and allow the person to end up realizing that you're there for however long you're there, you don't put time limits on it. You don't try to explain anything. You make sure you keep them safe. You make sure physically, their needs are being met.

There's something as a chaplain interventionist, we provide for emotional and spiritual care. I include that spirituality, and if that is what they're asking or saying they want, I'm non-denominational. I don't serve one particular belief system or another, it's up to the person, but if they need spiritual care, I absolutely give that to them. Having said that, and I'll tell you, one of the first things I have consistently seen in all of my work across the board including the sheriff's office, is that when there is chaos and it calms down after the event and the trauma hits - the one thing that does seem to help people collect themselves, I ask them "Would you like me or would it help you if I said a prayer right now?" I've only ever had one person tell me no when I've done that. When I do that, there's just a soothing way that you can pray and be specific but generic enough that doesn't offend anyone and that brings a calm to it. It puts the person in a position to be able to start to listen or feel what it is they need to move into next to kind of settle down.

When tragedy like this happens in Boston, I can tell you that the stress hormones and the body chemistry of all those people involved in that was so out of whack, traumatized is what we call it, but it's actually a biological thing that happens to the body.

Q: So this must have been particularly difficult for you as well - going to Newtown?

A: It was pretty tricky, but no more so [for me] than anyone else.

There is no one that could have gone to that event, and there were no chaplains there - and we had 20-something at one point, we had all of our coordinators that could be there - that wouldn't find that difficult. It's just virtually not possible ... we saw a lot of journalists a lot of news people and a lot of neighbors around where it happened who were traumatized. There is nothing that has ever been like Newtown. It woke our nation up.

But our goal right now for the Sheriff's department with the chaplaincy program, is what we're hoping to see happen down the road, is [for] all of our sheriff's department to understand what we're talking about here to keep one another strong and to keep each other safe, and how to help people in the community. It's no good if we can do it if we don't help our community we serve.

[I]t's actually strengthening the deputies and the communities both, because they're not out there with nothing to fall back on. And that's what happens in so many places. Law enforcement is not looked at by the general community as anybody who needs support on the traumatic end of it, when in fact everyone does, it doesn't matter who you are. Our goal is to see that our deputies are strong, that we are strong, that if you needed me, you could call me and I could be there to assist and walk through a trauma with you and you would be strong when it was all done at the end. Nobody should be alone and now have assistance when they're in a traumatic situation.