Lessons from Irene: Thoughts from a Crisis Expert


On Saturday, Sarah Hiner interviewed me for her radio show, Bottom Line on Your Health. With the specter of Hurricane Irene marching up the eastern seaboard, Hiner introduced me as a Crisis Expert, questioning how New Yorkers should respond to the looming storm.

As an EMT and ski patroller, I’ve seen my fair share of emergencies. Most of the time, I’m on scene for someone else’s crisis. In fact, in the midst of a serious accident, it’s important to remind myself that “this isn’t my emergency.” In other words, being the caregiver means staying above the crisis.

However, when the crisis is your own, that isn’t easy to do. When the doctor has just told your husband that “it’s cancer,” or Anderson Cooper looks straight at you through your television monitor, raises one eyebrow in concern and tells you the storm is headed right to your doorstep, you can no longer stand apart. The crisis is barreling down on you.

And yet, the storm might downgrade. The doctors might just stave off the advance of the cancer until a liver donor can be found. You might just make it through. That is, if you don’t panic.

Dealing with an emergency requires you to walk a fine line between preparedness and action. As an EMT, I’ve trained countless hours for managing medical emergencies. I’ve thumped on Rescuci-Annie’s chest, I’ve practiced with the Automatic Defibrillator. I’ve memorized my ABC mnemonics to remember the order of care is Airway, Breathing, then Circulation.

When my husband became the patient, I couldn’t do CPR on him in hopes of saving his life. I could, however, use the skills I’d learned on the slopes to keep me from panicking. I learned to balance between the far-away examination of big What Ifs and the close action of getting through the next fifteen minutes until he could push his morphine button again.

Handling any crisis requires this same balance. When a big hurricane is barreling down on you, make preparations. Fill your bathtub with water, stock up on some high-energy foods and stripe duct tape across your windows. But don’t let these preparations make you panic. Don’t let Anderson Cooper’s gaze spark you into frenzy. No offense against Mr. Cooper, but news is business.

Remember that.

As soon as Irene sprang into action, the news forgot all about Tripoli and Gaddafi. And let’s face it, if Sandy Vietz, instead of urinating on a girl on a Jet Blue flight during a slow news week, had peed on President Obama’s daughter while flying in Air Force One this weekend, he would hardly have made the CNN crawler.

In her radio program, Sarah Hiner suggested that the preparation experts were a bit overblown. The news was making such a big deal out of it, that people were panicking. They needed the real scoop on the do’s and don’ts during such a storm. That’s where preparation comes in.

I’m not an alarmist, but the past decade certainly has seen some big weather events. If these are the times we live in, then a little preparation can help. But I will always argue, that it is the shorter view that staves off panic. Breaking time into manageable chunks, doing the next right thing, and then the next will help you in a crisis.

So next time that hurricane is on its way, remember to slow down. This might not be your emergency, no matter how earnestly the news anchor pins you down with his stare.

10 responses »

  1. Great points, Kim. The fine line between preparedness and action is especially relevant, I think. The media does such a great job these days of heightening our sense of fear that it can be difficult to cut through the sensational clutter and hear your own voice of reason. To prepare enough but not panic. To act with pragmatism and not allow our emotions to run over us… thanks for the reminder that we have the power and capacity to discern these subtle differences when we pay attention to ourselves and the world around us.

  2. As an expert panicker myself, I welcome this post! I’ve tried to tame my anxious worrywart tendencies with Zen meditation, learning to see that life is just this moment. It’s all and everything we have. And then be practical and prepare as best I can! [sidebar: I dined across the room from Anderson Cooper, his brother, and his mom Gloria Vanderbilt back in the early 1980s at the Ritz in Boston. He was a cute, dark-haired prep school kid back then. His mom was whom everyone was trying to ignore, it being Boston, but kept stealing glances at.]

  3. My favorite advice comes from Douglass Adams book, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. The author attributes the popularity of the book to the words “Don’t Panic” on the cover in “large friendly letters”. It’s good advice and advice we allo should follow regularly.

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