From Surfside to Ukraine

We are used to dealing with witnesses to trauma.

Dr. Sharon Slater assists a Ukrainian refugee coming to Israel as part of United Hatzalah's “Operation Orange Wings.” Credit: United Hatzalah.
Dr. Sharon Slater assists a Ukrainian refugee coming to Israel as part of United Hatzalah's “Operation Orange Wings.” Credit: United Hatzalah.
Sharon Slater. Photo: Ciona Shaked
Sharon Slater

It’s been a year since the Champlain Tower South condominium at Collins Avenue 8777 collapsed in Surfside, Fla. After the disaster, I went on a United Hatzalah mission to aid the victims. It’s hard to believe that a year has gone by. The memories of that week are indelible. For those of us in United Hatzalah’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit, it was different from any other experience to date.

We are used to arriving on the scene when an event is happening. This event had happened three days earlier. We are used to dealing with witnesses to trauma. Most of the families involved had not witnessed anything, yet were significantly traumatized. On most of our calls, there is some degree of certainty: Someone is being resuscitated or someone has died, or they are alive but may die. At Surfside, during those initial few days, there was no degree of certainty. Which apartments were occupied, and who was in them? Were there air pockets under the rubble? How long can people survive in such conditions? Where were they located and was there a chance they were alive? These were the questions circulating among the Surfside families. Most of them remained unanswered for the duration of our stay.

Our job became twofold: helping families living with uncertainty to make it from one day to the next, and simultaneously engaging them in the process of finding their loved ones. The latter was the initiative of IDF Home Front Command, and we joined forces with them in order to try to alleviate the helplessness and listlessness that greeted us when we first encountered the families. Bringing the families into the process of locating their loved ones by having them provide us with pertinent information became the single most important factor in their resilience. Ultimately, it taught us a lesson that we would utilize nine months later on the Ukrainian border.

The Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit evolved as a response to the unknown territory that was Surfside. There were some aspects to our work that were familiar: We treated survivors who had evacuated in the middle of the night. We treated a family that had managed to escape just as the building collapsed around them. We engaged with community members who were mourning their losses and rabbis who were mourning their congregants. But the majority of our work was in helping people find their resilience in the face of uncertainty. They were in a strange situation, in unfamiliar surroundings, with other people who were grieving but otherwise strangers, while living out of a suitcase in a hotel room. This was the reality for most of the families who converged on Surfside, waiting for news of whether their loved ones had survived or not.

As a unit, we had to adapt. We learned to address the families’ uncertainty head-on and acknowledge it as one of the most challenging aspects of the entire experience. Several families told me directly that they felt they could cope with any news—even tragic news—better than no news. And one woman, who was the first to bury her parents, came back to the family center just to give others strength. She felt that her situation of certainty gave her the ability to comfort others.

We learned that assigning the families tasks, even small tasks, was integral to their ability to get through the day. Doing nothing just accentuated their sense of helplessness. And we learned that when they were overwhelmed, it sometimes helped to ask them small questions and work their cognition in order to give their emotions a break. Do you have a picture of the necklace that your mother never took off? Can you find that picture for me? Do you think you might find it on the Tiffany website so we could have a clearer picture of it? Evocative questions like, “How are you feeling?” and “What are you feeling?” that are standard fare in therapy sessions had no place in a context such as this.

We also learned that, as a group of six Psychotrauma Unit members in a constantly evolving and intensely fraught situation, we needed to lean on each other for personal and professional support. This was something that happened in our daily planning sessions, and in impromptu discussions as well, when we sought each other out after a long and challenging day. The bond between us helped us in our work and enabled us to process events with greater resilience. Ultimately, it moved us forward as a unit.

Nine months later, the lessons of Surfside resounded in Moldova after war broke out in Ukraine and we were invited to assist refugees on the border and inside Moldova itself. We were confronted with a level of uncertainty that was exponential, and extended to refugees who did not know where they would sleep that night, how they would find their next meal and whether they would ever see their brothers, husbands or fathers again.

Like those at Surfside, these refugees were living out of suitcases, trying to survive the experience in whatever way they could and thrown together with strangers in similar circumstances who were grieving many losses. From a trauma treatment perspective, we had been there less than a year ago, and we knew what to do. But we also knew what not to do, and we could instruct the other members of the delegation accordingly.

Although the situation in Moldova was unique, I know that much of my work in that first week of the war was informed by my experience at Surfside, and by the numerous interactions with the strong and inspiring individuals I met there. In essence, one disaster defined by uncertainty prepared me for another. I am not grateful to have had the need to respond to either event, but I am grateful that I was able to assist those in need. May we never know such tragedy again.

Dr. Sharon Slater is a clinical psychologist who has lived in Israel for 30 years and a volunteer medic for United Hatzalah. She is also a senior member of United Hatzalah’s Psychotrauma Unit, which provides trauma care both in Israel and abroad.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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