Lesson Learned (Oct. 29)


Today, we welcome guest columnist Dr. Jeffery Harvey. He is the Director of Safety and Emergency Preparedness for Upshur County Schools. Jeff was born and raised in Upshur County, having graduated from BUHS in 1996. Since 2002, he has worked as a consultant and a practitioner in the emergency management and safety industries. He holds a doctorate degree in executive leadership, for which his research focus was shared leadership in disaster recovery.

Gone are the days when the “emergency responder” was the firefighter, police officer and emergency medical technician. Now, mental health professionals, doctors, school principals, public health nurses, 911 dispatchers, and the like can lay claim to the label.

Allow me to tell you about a few of the emergency responders I know.

They care. That care is about more than a concern for others, often times strangers, though that’s a big part of it; it’s a professional etiquette, a desire to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

Time isn’t a big deal to them; if it is important, they will find the time to get it done.

They are mission driven, determined, and when they set their minds on a target, they find a way to meet it. The crisis is something to be defeated, and a single-mindedness to win can produce curt conversations, directives, and an aloofness that doesn’t seem consistent with their caring nature. I am the embodiment of that last sentence as much as anyone.

Which brings me to a lesson learned from the response to the COVID-19 pandemic: the importance of empathy.

Merriam-Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

I define empathy as understanding (which is much more than simply acknowledging) and respecting the perspectives of others.

In June 2012, a super derecho swept across the Midwest and through the central Appalachians and Mid-Atlantic United States. It was a devastating event for West Virginia, and many of us remember two-plus weeks without power and many other public services well. A staff member in an emergency operations center working the derecho’s aftermath received two memorable calls in the same morning. The first was a distraught resident who began with the phrase, “You’re going to find dead people.” Of course, this phrase prompted the staffer to action, and he immediately went into a mode of rapid-fire questioning to glean as much information as possible. The emotions of that caller were less important than the information given. By the end of the call, the conversation revealed the caller’s concern about the extreme heat and the subsequent health effects (there were, in fact, no fatalities). The conversation also devolved into a yelling match where the caller accused the staffer of not caring about county residents and the staffer claiming the caller was wasting time on a valuable emergency phone line.

Later that morning, the staffer took a call from another resident who wanted to know where the nearest cooling station was located. The staffer relayed the information, and even though the caller thanked him for the information, the caller did not hang up. It turns out that resident just needed to talk with another adult because he had been alone with two small children for several days in a small, non-air conditioned home. The staffer gave that caller a few minutes, listened, and they talked about something as innocuous as the upcoming football season. That caller ended the conversation much calmer than he began it, with a hearty thank you and a hopeful thought that everyone would get through the disaster.

Confession: the staffer was me, and I hadn’t reflected on those exchanges much…until COVID-19.

The school community – teachers, custodians, administrators, cooks, counselors, nurses, and especially students and families – is a microcosm of the community at large. There are as many perspectives on COVID and responses to it as there are people. Some press local officials for the data behind support of face covering mandates. Others wonder aloud how anyone could even think of opening schools.

A board of education employee called me to let me know that his child was at a doctor’s office, had lost all sense of taste and smell, and was awaiting COVID test results. The employee wanted to know what to do. I answered as directly as I could, and the answer was emotionless. The answer was inappropriate. While that employee agreed to seek testing and to isolate while awaiting the results, without question, it wasn’t until I caught myself, slowed down, and asked a few questions about the child that our employee seemed more comfortable with the advice.

In these times of physical distancing and minimal gatherings, it’s not just instructions that people need. It’s connection.

While neither I, nor any responder, can pretend to know another’s motives, it is important that the responder tries to understand a person’s connection to the situation. Maybe he has been caring for an elderly, ill parent. Maybe she is a survivor of the 2008 H1N1 pandemic, having spent time in the hospital. Maybe he has a high-risk tolerance in all aspects of his life. The responder has to focus attention on the common goal, and influence everyone, regardless of their perspectives or motives, to action toward that goal.

Obtaining that influence starts with a desire to understand someone else, and then slowing down and listening. Just five minutes, like those I gave to the exasperated parent following the derecho, can make the difference between inciting fear rather than healthy concern, panic as opposed to rational action.

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