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9/11 and Covid-19: two mass traumatic events with different recovery challenges

Calling a radiology department to follow her doctor’s order to get an emergency angiogram in May, she started sobbing when the receptionist said she couldn’t schedule the procedure until it tested negative for Covid.

“I broke down in tears and pleaded, ‘I don’t deserve to die at home just because you don’t have a protocol,'” said Colbert, marketing consultant and business author in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “I’ve never felt so abandoned.”

People will not visit his home. “I’m 170 days away from contracting Covid and people continue to treat me as if I have the plague,” said Colbert, who is recovering but still suffers from the persistent effects of the virus. “Since March only my mother, my friend Sara and a repairman have entered my house.”


The coronavirus pandemic may be the most significant mass trauma of the decade and is drawing parallels to another significant trauma: the attacks of September 11, 2001. The events of September 11 have a lot to teach us about the impact of trauma.

Does trauma impact us equally, regardless of its source? Will our recovery journey be the same? What causes some trauma to create a human connection while others destroy it?

What 9/11 can teach us about current challenges

Mass trauma can create a prolonged state of “chronic threat response” – the continual state of being in an over-excited survival mode. About 20 percent of those in the World Trade Center Health Registry reported new post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms five to six years after 9/11.
The impact of trauma can also persist for many years, even decades. Fifteen years later, in a sample of 36,897 exposed rescue / recovery workers and community members on the WTC health registry, 14.2% of responders and 15.3% of community members reported post-stress stress disorder. traumatic and depression.
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Jonathan Morris, 62, then a US Army sergeant, was the non-commissioned officer in charge of the emergency department at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland during 9/11. He lost two colleagues in the Pentagon attacks: Army Lieutenant General Timothy Maude and Army Lieutenant Colonel Karen Wagner, who was killed on her first day at the Pentagon.

“It’s been nearly 20 years and I still think of the friends and colleagues I’ve lost every day,” Morris said.

The impact of trauma often increases and decreases over time, and help is not always available when needed. Over a quarter of those with PTSD or depression reported needing unmet psychiatric care in the previous year.

Morris is taking a proactive approach. “Since this time of year is particularly difficult for all of us, I have contacted and ‘buddy checked’ others who have been affected like me since 9/11. I don’t want to lose more friends due to suicide.”

People lose friends after exposure to trauma

The period immediately following the traumatic loss is painful, oppressive and tumultuous. In the wake of a tragedy, many survivors find that family and friends are not as supportive as they hoped, or do not support it at all.

Goodbye, grandfather: an expert guide to talking to children about death during Covid

Sometimes people are fine, sometimes not: trauma creates ambiguities that can make recovery difficult.

“People want to tie things up in a neat little bow – ‘Are you sick or aren’t you sick?’” Colbert said. “‘Will I send you a note or can I take you off my prayer list now?’ The aftermath of the trauma clarifies who is in your tribe, and this clarity can bring further pain.If you contract Covid, your most lasting challenge may be loneliness.

Kate Colbert is shown here before her struggles with Covid-19 and its aftermath.

The recovery course for 2 traumatic events can be very different

It can be more difficult to do nothing than to do something really difficult. With both 9/11 and the London bombings, “going on” was a form of healthy challenge. During the London bombings, morale was higher in some of the hardest-hit parts of London.

Post-traumatic growth: With support, some trauma can help us grow

On the contrary, Covid silently and mercilessly divides and conquers, sowing powerlessness, mutual distrust and paralyzing fear. Prolonged social isolation can be as dangerous as the virus to some Americans.

And post-traumatic stress disorder is likely to have a widespread and lasting impact when we get out of Covid, just as it did for some of those affected by the 9/11 attacks. Not everyone can “overcome” Covid or overcome a frightening escape from the Twin Towers.

And while people weren’t afraid of being able to “catch” 9/11, fear of contagion is a unique challenge for those who contract Covid-19. Reactions to his illness remind Colbert of the personal guilt and social rejection that went to those who contracted HIV and AIDS during the HIV / AIDS epidemic.

I can't shake Covid-19: warnings from young survivors still in distress

Some traumas can lead us from feeling part of the human community to a place of profound isolation, where our trust in the goodness of others is deeply damaged. As Colbert reported: “These days, I can’t tell friend from foe. The kindest people feel sorry for me, the fearful ones are cruel, and the indifferent ones have forgotten about me. But I am still me and still am. Here I am. , and I’m not well. ”

How can we do it?

Even if your family has been fortunate enough to have been spared from the cruel impact of the new coronavirus, whether it’s your health, your finances or your job, know that we are wired to act in response to the threat. There are ways we can cope with this period of unknowns.

1. Identify three things you can do and take action. Moving with purpose on our values ​​is how we find meaning in the midst of chaos. Identifying three things we can act on without endangering others and acting on these things can help us regain our fighting spirit.

2. Instead of focusing on “social distance”, we try to “connect at a distance”. Take a moment to think about your personal, people in your inner circle that you deeply trust. Put a reminder on your phone to contact one of these special people every day in rotation. Being intent on connecting with our tribe provides an anchor during a perfect stress storm.

3. Advances in trauma treatment are cause for new hope. There are a variety of promising new treatment options that target both the biological and psychological symptoms of trauma. For example, stellate ganglion block is an injection that helps calm a hyperactive fight-or-flight system, and ketamine infusions are another emerging treatment option. (SGB is offered by the Stella Center in Oakbrook, Illinois, just outside Chicago, at no personal cost to qualified individuals enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program.)

Post-traumatic stress doesn’t have to be a life sentence, so ask for help and don’t give up.

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