How sad is February 26, 1972, the anniversary for the Buffalo Creek Disaster! This is one of too many dates that stand out in West Virginia history for all the wrong reasons. My life changed as I studied medicine at the West Virginia University School of Medicine. I made plans to return home to Buckhannon following graduation to practice family medicine like my father, Harold David Almond, MD. However, I began to hear of children living up and down the 17-mile Buffalo Creek who were forever changed by the deadliest flood in our state’s history. They cried every time it rained. They went from “A” students to “F” students. Their parents who used to mine coal, never missing a day’s work, never worked again. Families who lived in the six villages wiped out by a massive coal sludge flood up that Logan County hollow watched 125 family members and loved ones physically die, experiencing their own souls dying, too.
At the same time, the Vietnam War continued as a disaster, including 12 of my Buckhannon-Upshur classmates dying in the jungle conflict far from our Appalachian Mountains Forest home. Overall, nearly 58,000 American youth gave all in battle for that tragedy, while 180,000 died by suicide once back in the United States.
As a Doctor of Medicine educated to make diagnoses and offer treatment, I sought an understanding of what was happening. My goal of practicing in the hills of West Virginia remained viable. I returned to Buckhannon in 1977 to join my father in Family Medicine and my wife in Pediatrics, but with the distinctive twist of practicing Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry. By 1980 the answer became clear for what happens when a person is overwhelmed in body, mind and spirit; the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) clearly could be formulated.
Then I leaned into rehabilitation medicine, healing sometimes and comforting always, by signing on as Chief of Psychiatry at the Louis A. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) in 1988. The opportunity came and I embraced it to formulate the second most enrolled Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Outpatient Rehabilitation Program among the 172 VAMCs in the USA. By treating patriotic mountaineers, I gained expertise in relieving the suffering of my friends and neighbors, including the 2,000 Upshur County citizens who have defended our freedom in war.
Now I have served for nearly 12 years as an elected member of the Board of Education, where we teach our Upshur County students using trauma-informed educational theory and practice. Trauma-informed teaching considers how trauma impacts learning and behavior. Trauma can slow down or completely stop our ability to learn. Kids experiencing trauma are more likely to fall behind in class or get in trouble for behavior issues.
Our children and grandchildren have lived through a “perfect storm” of trauma, first being reared in the mountains in the center of an Opioid Epidemic, with West Virginia having the highest death rate from overdose in the USA. On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused further isolation and trauma since March 2020, with even a more troubled youth suffering ongoing trauma until now.
My lesson learned this week from the school of hard knocks is that February 26 will be a significant anniversary date, subject to flashbacks and nightmares for our otherwise hardy and resilient citizens of the great State of West Virginia. I will welcome the dialogue that will come from Dr. Joseph Reed’s timely invitation to share what we can do as a caring community vested in relieving suffering. On February 6 at 9 am Dr. Reed will give a presentation at the Buckhannon Presbyterian Church. Dr. Reed wears several hats, including his role as the face and voice of public health as Medical Director for the Upshur Buckhannon Health Department and his role as a Presbyterian Church member who convenes these sharing opportunities for our hearts and souls.