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Recently, Terry Gross of NPR's FRESH AIR radio program interviewed journalist and former war correspondent, Ernesto Londono. We’ve quoted the interview here, because Londono describes so perfectly what many humanitarian workers and first responders experience as well. He describes the way the body establishes a “new normal” or way of operating in order to adapt to demanding environments. In Londono’s case, the loss of a long-time colleague to suicide challenged his notion that he and his colleagues could really beat the odds.
LONDONO: I think most of us in that tribe of war correspondents who have spent many years going from one war zone to another have spent the past few years taking stock of how that experience has shaped us and, to some degree, broken us a bit. And it's - Dominic's death I think was a reminder for all of us of how strong and invincible we felt when we were doing this kind of work and for many of us, how hard it's been to come back and to rebuild lives that are very different after an experience that, for many of us, was very challenging, traumatizing, physically exhausting, emotionally devastating. And I think, to varying degrees, we all have some scars.
GROSS: Why is it that a war reporter would feel invincible while in the war zone and then feel like they're falling apart after getting to safety?
LONDONO: I think when you're doing this kind of work, your body switches into a state of sort of being adrenaline-fueled. The landscape is so confusing. The challenges are so significant. The dangers are so real that the only way to really operate in this environment is to be very gung-ho and very focused. And your body operates differently. Your mind operates differently. And I think, for many of us, you know, over the years in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was this sense of invincibility. There was the sense that we knew enough and that we were taking enough precautions to beat the odds. And, to varying degrees, I think many of us did manage those risks carefully and thoughtfully.
I think what we didn't really think about at the time or really paying - paid attention to was what that experience was going to look like years down the road, whether we were going to start struggling with substance abuse, whether we were going to have nightmares, whether we were going to feel withdrawn once we were back in the United States. And I think many of us wrestled with some of those things. And like Dominic, I think many of us never really wanted to draw attention to the fact that we were still somewhat haunted and still a little bit broken from those experiences because it was seen as something that could be career-damaging.
-NPR, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 7, 2015 http://www.npr.org/2015/01/07/375628523/did-editorials-influence-obamas-decision-to-normalize-relations-with-cuba
Research offers many explanations for his experience. We are learning more and more about how the body accustoms itself to operating in a hyper-vigilant state. And we’re learning that this new baseline, which seems so effective in the short term, can have long term consequences, even down to the cellular level. There are many physiological reasons why individuals would later experience many of the symptoms he describes, whether it’s a feeling of jumpiness, or being prone to addictive behaviors, or struggling to get back to the same level of operating (thinking and emotionally). We talk about this in our Trauma and Critical Incident Care module in the section on Allostatic load (pg.10).
Allostatic load is the wear and tear on the body that can happen if we stay in an elevated stress state for too long without letting the body repair itself. The important thing to know is that there are ways of helping the brain and body repair these systems. And there are things individuals can do in the midst of the work that can help prevent damage as well. But it’s important to recognize that it’s happening and actively address it. This is what beating the odds is really about.
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