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Whidbey CareNet hopes to help first responders

Rob Harrison and Petra Martin have joined to promote Whidbey CareNet, a new effort to support first responders on Whidbey Island with therapy and counseling. - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Rob Harrison and Petra Martin have joined to promote Whidbey CareNet, a new effort to support first responders on Whidbey Island with therapy and counseling.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

Last year was a difficult one for South Whidbey residents.

Four people died in auto-related accidents within 44 days. And while people on the South End gathered to support the victims’ families, those who tried to save their lives were left to deal with the trauma.

The grief and sorrow that can grip firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians and others can take a long time to fade. That inspired Petra Martin, the communications coordinator at South Whidbey Commons in Langley, to create Whidbey CareNet, a network to help those who help others on South Whidbey with counseling and therapy, both physical and emotional.

“When something like this happens, we all feel helpless,” Martin said. “Asking these caregivers — counselors, yoga instructors, massage therapists — they all thanked me for the opportunity to help them.”

Martin was moved to organize the support group after the triple fatality car crash in November north of Clinton. Three young men died, and an 18-year-old volunteer with South Whidbey Fire/EMS was one of the first responders to the scene. Martin recalled seeing him the next day at the Commons.

“He walked into the Commons white as a sheet after that and told us he had been there,” Martin said.

“There are things you just can’t un-see.”

Martin sought the assistance of counselors and therapy professionals. Within two weeks Martin had their responses, all 25 of them, which surprised her because they all offered their services for free.

“It was like taking the cork out of a champagne bottle. The response went viral,” Martin said.

“Right now, we have lots and lots of providers, and they are eager to help first responders.”

One of those providers is Alina Frank, a body therapist with Tap Your Power in Langley.

Frank specializes in emotional freedom techniques, which she said is “like emotional acupuncture without needles.” The physical therapy is also known as the tapping technique, in which the therapist taps along the body to unlock stress.

“We get their nervous system to really calm down and regulate,” Frank said. “It helps with sleep patterns and all those things that are affected by a shocking emotional picture.”

“I just help get rid of that.”

Frank was part of the Iraq Vets Stress Project, a group that aims to help veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat zones. The issue is similar from veterans to first responders, she said, because both see jarring images.

“I know that it’s been remarkably effective with veterans, and I wanted to bring this work home,” Frank said. “There’s so much shock and intensity in an image.”

Frank’s service was “incredibly helpful” to South Whidbey firefighter and EMT Rob Harrison.

Harrison has served the South End since 2002. And more than the infrequent distress of seeing a dead body, Harrison said the weight of his gear takes its toll.

“After I put on that 80 pounds of gear just so I can train, yeah, my body’s feeling it,” he said.

Getting the civil service workers to utilize the counseling has proven difficult. Martin met with South Whidbey Fire/EMS Chief Rusty Palmer recently to discuss Whidbey CareNet.

“He says they can be a tough and stoic bunch,” Martin said. “For them to admit that they need help or they need care is the biggest hurdle.”

It’s a problem Harrison admitted to experiencing. Seeking counseling is not a common topic of conversation at the fire station.

“One of the things being in the fire district that people aren’t necessarily aware of is the amount of stress we deal with,” Harrison said.

“Considering that the number one killer of firefighters is heart attacks, there’s something wrong there.”

Once first responders contact Whidbey CareNet, it’s up to the first responders to choose which counselor, therapist, masseuse, chiropractor or yoga instructor they want. The professional and the patient then determine how many sessions they will have as part of the Whidbey CareNet offerings.

“I really think there are many different avenues in healing,” Frank said. “It’s really what resonates for each particular person what they want to do.”

Whidbey CareNet providers can be found on its website, http://whidbeycarenet.org. For more information, Martin can be emailed at petra@whidbeycarenet.org.

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