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Quaking with bad memories - Doctor warns returning relief workers about PTSD

Published:Thursday | January 21, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Laura Redpath, Senior Gleaner Writer

The nightmare doesn't end when the plane takes off from Port-au-Prince. For some, that is when it begins.

Relief workers, including search-and-rescue personnel, doctors and nurses, as well as journalists and soldiers, run the risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly referred to as PTSD.

Dr Khia Duncan returned to Jamaica on Monday and said she was shaken up.

"I'm hearing planes land," she said. "I keep hearing things. A roof feels very strange to me."

Duncan camped out by the runway at the Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport with other Jamaican doctors and nurses in 18-degree weather.

She also said that she cries intermittently and is constantly trembling.

Normal behaviour

Clinical psychologist, Dr Karen Richards, said that reacting to the disturbing scenes is normal.

"It is not abnormal to be having abnormal feelings."

One of the symptoms of PTSD include increased anxiety, such as being startled by sights and sounds that may take a person back to the stressful experiences. Others include intrusive images while awake or during sleep, and avoidance.

"People suffering from PTSD will tend to avoid things that remind them of the event," Richards said.

Relief workers and reporters who are working in the field tend to "suspend emotions and reactions", according to Richards.

"Doctors will experience emotions when arriving home, as well as nightmares and anxiety."

Haitians prone to disorder

However, these persons are not the only ones. Haitian victims are likely to also experience PTSD.

A patient taken to Centre de Bernhard Mevs became startled and started screaming when she saw a crack in the building.

"She pointed at the crack and started screaming in Creole," said Dr Naomi Swaby, another doctor who also returned to Jamaica on Monday from Haiti.

"We had to calm her down and explain to her that she is safe."

Richards also said children may show signs of trauma as well.

"Just trying to understand what has happened when you're four or five years old must be extremely difficult," Richards said.

The clinical psychologist is offering help to relief workers and reporters who are coming to terms with the devastation in Haiti.

For Help with PTSD

For those who recognise symptoms of PTSD, Richards can be reached at 489-3434.