Daniel J. Potterton, FEI Chief Operating Officer

Warning: This blog contains graphic descriptions of events that some readers might find disturbing. Names have been changed for confidentiality.

Twelve months after leaving her commendable 20-year nursing supervisor position at one of Manhattan’s busiest emergency departments, Linda suddenly became overwhelmed and sobbed uncontrollably for what seemed like hours. She felt exhausted after regaining her composure, but was left with an enormous amount of relief and a great deal of confusion.

Later, she recalled the trigger: She had just passed a construction site and recognized a certain smell, a smell that uncorked a deeply receded and capped memory. A memory that encapsulated 20 years of helping others.

As a youngster, I listened attentively to the ER stories Linda would tell me. Many were tragic, some were miraculous. She told the stories matter-of-factly, as part of a “normal work day.” But to me there was nothing normal to hear.

One powerful story stuck in my mind. Linda told me she smelled an unusual odor immediately after the ER doors opened. She looked up to see a young construction worker walking towards her. An explosion had blown off most of his clothes; penetrating burns covered 90 percent of his body. The heat from the explosion melted part of his safety helmet to his head. His work buddies wasted no time for an ambulance and rushed him to the hospital. It was unbelievable that he could talk or even walk.

After he was initially treated for shock and intense burns, Linda recalled that he asked her if he was going to be okay. She told me that she reassured him, but she also knew in her head that he would be dead in a matter of days, if not hours. She was troubled that she could not bear to tell him the truth.

Then there was Jeff. Jeff, a seasoned veteran of the Afghan war, was a city cop arriving on the scene of a horrific car accident. The driver was decapitated, but her infant son remained safely secured in the back seat.

During his tours in combat, Jeff had seen more than his share of human carnage. He suffered the loss of friends to IEDs. Returning home, Jeff sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and was gratified to help other vets deal with their own demons.

After the car accident, however, Jeff detached himself from his family and friends, became short tempered and used excessive amounts of alcohol to blur the intrusive images of the victim. He couldn’t understand how, after all he had gone through and recovered from, he would be troubled so much by a single motor vehicle accident.

Help arrived for Jeff from a caring family member who assisted him with putting two and two together.  It was the infant from the back seat; Jeff had become a father to his own little son just six weeks earlier.

Best practice in crisis management teaches us to “prepare for the unexpected.” The saying reminds us to be sure that emergency and/or crisis management plans take into consideration every imaginable – and unimaginable – risk. Sometimes overlooked are the means and resources for taking care of the helpers, those tasked to help and trained to “pitch in,” and those professionally trained to help with the unimaginable.

Let’s not forget who we depend on to execute our written emergency response plans during times of crisis. FEI’s crisis management programs provide expert consultation to help organizations design, write and review emergency and crisis management and disaster recovery plans that include taking care of the forgotten heroes: The everyday helper.