© 2008 Kate Amatruda

Tuesday, February 20
1128 Hours
Scrunched into a slippery orange chair at the DMV, I’m waiting with my 15-1/2 year old son to see what he needs to do to get a learner’s permit. With my Supermom powers of detecting danger where none exists, I’m conjuring up exploding gas tanks, road rage and high-speed crashes. I shudder at the picture of my boy in a vehicle going 65 mph. My nickname as a child was “Chicken Little” for my propensity to worry that the sky was falling.

My cell phone bleats. The moment I hear the robotic voice saying “This is an urgent message from the Federal Disaster Medical Response Team,” adrenaline pumps through my body. The neurotransmitter fires up my sympathetic nervous system – heart, lungs, blood vessels, bladder, gut and genitalia. Yes, even them, although I’ll try to wait until tonight in bed to act on it.

The voice continues, “We have been placed on Advisory status for a possible mission as soon as tomorrow. You may respond by doing one of the following:

1. I will review the website information and update my availability soon.

2. I am not available to deploy or assist with a mission for the next few weeks.”

I’m always ready to go. The team consists of a bunch of crazed medical professionals who combine cynicism and compassion, often in the same sentence. I would trust them with my life; in fact, I have. Yes, I’ll go.

More than that though, it’s the survivors, raw and real, who touch me. They’ve been through brutal, life-shattering events; I see their pain, their resilience, and the very depths of who they are. I have perceived terror, rage, gut-wrenching loss, and amazing spirit in survivors. Villages, homes and families destroyed in a nanosecond – the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina; life is fragile and precious. We’re small, and nature’s big. As a disaster mental health worker, I go to bear witness; I hold them and their stories. I am humbled, powerless to do any more. Of course I’ll go.Kate_sri_lanka.butterfly.sm.jpg

I will admit, too, that the prospect of avoiding up to two weeks of math homework with my son compels me to say yes, yes, yes, count me in. I hit “1”.

Yet, this notification is odd; always before, we’ve been told where we were going. I can’t access the team website from the DMV, so I call my husband and beg him to do a Google News search. He says, “I hate to disappoint you, but nothing’s happening – no tornadoes, tsunamis, floods, fires, or terrorist attacks. Sorry, sweetheart.”

I’m drumming my fingers and tapping my feet; the purgatory of the DMV is eternal. Finally, the clerk calls us, elucidating the process my son must follow to be licensed. I bolt out and race home, speeding, distracted, setting a very bad example for my soon-to-be-driving boy.

Jamming my key into the door, I throw my purse down and power up the computer. I chant, “come on, come on” as it slowly awakens. I pound in my password and get into the members page of the team website. Mystery solved – we are activated for “Operation Burnt Frost, a Space Object Re-Entry Mission.” Chicken Little was right, the sky is falling. “A US spy satellite…is now nearing the point of re-entering the atmosphere. The satellite carries hydrazine as a fuel source.”

Hydrazine? What’s that? “Hydrazine is a toxic substance with varying health effects…inhalation can cause respiratory tract irritation, seizures and other CNS effects, and death in larger doses. In addition to the hydrazine, there is a very remote possibility of trauma from being struck by falling debris.” Falling debris? The speed of the satellite is 27,000 mph. The only intervention for that kind of trauma is to call DMORT, the Disaster Morticians.

I pull out my huge, black duffle bag and rifle through my gear. I could probably charge my cell phone, iPod, and camera with the electricity surging through me, but I plug everything in to be sure, making a note to remember to pack the chargers. I gas up the car; last time I forgot.

The moon is in total eclipse tonight; the red light eerie. The news is terrible, with lots of name calling – “renegade,” “rogue” and “derelict.” I’m tempted to offer a bullying seminar – “Words can hurt.” There’s no mention of all the other spy satellites that have tumbled down, no mention that government officials said, only two weeks ago, “A disabled U.S. spy satellite is likely to break into small pieces when it falls to Earth within weeks, posing little danger to humans.” Personally, I’m rooting for the rogue.

CNN reports a direct hit at 7:26 p.m.; now the terms are “Herculean,” “heroic” and they’re bragging that they only had a four-second window of opportunity to fire the missile. They nailed it. The Department of Defense said it wouldn’t know for 24 hours whether the fuel tank had been hit or not.

Sleep eludes me; still I buzz with excitement. I clutch my cellphone in my hand; when we were deployed for the San Diego wildfires, the call came at 4:00 a.m. First thing in the morning I check the team website and CNN, even before the coffee is made. Nothing has changed, so I get my son off to school, and I go to work.

At 11:00 a.m., we get the news: “We have been stood down from advisory status for the satellite re-entry; fuel tank destruction has been confirmed.”

While relieved no one has been hurt, I’m disappointed; I wanted to go. With a sigh, I turn to my client who is, like me, a suburban, menopausal woman. I bear witness to her pain, her struggles, and the emptiness in her life. I’m heartened as she descends to the core of her psyche; together we grieve her losses and celebrate her resilience, her amazing spirit. I see anew that we fall and then, we fly.

When Kate Amatruda, MFT, CST-T, BCETS, EMT, DMAT, DSHR-DMH is not responding to disasters, seeing clients, or doing math homework with her son, she’s scrying for an agent for her novel, a salsa version of Pride and Prejudice with a gender twist.

Menu