Counselors Continue to Help Ease Marathon Trauma
By Mengya Tian
BU News Service
After the Boston Marathon bombings last spring, Linda (not her real name)* felt traumatized for the second time in her life.
She attended walk-in sessions at the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) on Massachusetts Avenue one week after the bombing, crying, therapist David C. Dorney, remembered.
She said she was upset and couldn’t work.
“This is unusual, because people don’t talk about their problems voluntarily,” said school psychologist Margaret Suby, Dorney’s wife.
Two weeks after the bombing, Suby went to the area that most affected by the bombing and knocked on doors, particularly the Boylston Street businesses, to ask if they were OK. The response was often, “Come in,” Suby said.
Suby, 70, and Dorney, 72, were brought in by BPHC three days after the bombing to offer counseling at Hynes Convention Center. The counseling lasted a few weeks, at different locations.
Recently they held sessions at Boston Public Library to help people cope with the one-year anniversary of the marathon bombings.
Linda was a “particular” case, Dorney said.
She was about 27 or 28 years old, working at a shop on Newbury Street when it happened, he said. She was running for a charity. When she was 15 yards away from the finish line, she heard a boom — the first bomb going off.
Linda rolled to the ground confused, Dorney said. She spotted someone wearing a T-shirt with the name of her charity on it. They held hands and ran.
When they reached Clarendon Street, police let them climb over a barricade and they made their way back to their team room at the Marriott Hotel. There, Linda met up with her boyfriend. She was shaken, but not physically hurt.
“She was so scared that she couldn’t call up thoughts after the bombing,” Dorney said.
What had traumatized Linda the first time were the events of September 11.
That day she was riding the subway to work in New York City when a plane hit the first of the Twin Towers. The subway stopped at Union Square, Dorney said. Linda left the subway, only to witness another plane slamming into the second tower.
Her office was located at the bottom of one of the towers.
As dust and debris rained down and people fled the city, Linda ducked to a bar. Everyone else was drinking hard liquor, but Linda ordered coffee. She told Dorney that she sat there for four hours, shaking.
Dorney said he treated Linda with a type of psychotherapy called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR.
“It connects thinking to emotions,” Suby said.
The procedure alleviated her symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, Suby said.
“Eyeballs are also part of brain. They shape the experience of the brain,” Dorney explained. “Like when people recall things, their eyes look to the left, if they are right-handed.”
He stimulated Linda’s eyes to the left and the right, when he was helping her reconnect with her memories.
Most people’s first reaction toward shock and terror is either fight or flight, Dorney said. The mind may be unable to process exactly what is happening. Our brain is composed of two parts, digital thinking and sensory storage, he said. The amygdala, below the cortex allows us to react quickly, while the hippocampus of the brain shuts down, unable to send out information to be stored and processed.
When one part of the brain is working and experiencing the traumatic event, the other isn’t, he said.
“Your raw and unprocessed memory will come back to you again and again,” Dorney said.
One PTSD reaction is to have nightmares, which are related to the event that occurred. Another is to have difficulties controlling emotion, Dorney said. Terror or anger flares without control, and victims cannot think about basic tasks.
“I asked her to think about now, to think about being safe, alive, and caring, and to think about how good people are,” Dorney said.
Bad memories are not usually diminished when the anniversary of traumatic events occur, but Suby said, “We hope to layer this year over last year’s tragedy.”
Dorney and his wife will hold two more counseling sessions at the Boston Public Library after the marathon on April 22 and April 29, from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.
They also work for the mayor’s health hotline, which can be reached at 617-534-5050.
Only one person came to the library counseling session on April 8, but Suby said she was glad that they were there to help.
*Linda, a patient of David C. Dorney and Margaret Suby, is identified by a pseudonym to protect her identity.