2013-11-01 / Front Page

Tipping the odds

By Ann Fisher
Contributing Writer

Imagine the unimaginable happens: a spouse suddenly passes away; a fire claims the family home.

In the greater Portland area, those who are in crisis situations need look no farther for caring support than the Trauma Intervention Program, or TIP.

The second of two biannual trainings is scheduled to begin with the first of eight classes Thursday, Nov. 7. The training is spread out over a two-week period, ending Saturday, Nov. 16.

Classes teach volunteers the skills needed to support someone who is in crisis – whether it’s holding a hand or handing over a tissue – as well as provide resources needed to help family members navigate through stressful and unexpected situations. Training sessions are also held in the spring.

Those who give comfort and those who receive it in the Trauma Intervention Program both say they get more out of the program than they expect.

“I like to say, ‘It picked me,’” said Sandy, a longtime volunteer from South Portland, who asked that her last name be kept confidential due to information disseminated on social media.

Sandy’s three daughters were grown and “it was time to do something” when she saw an ad in the Sentry in 2005. “For some reason I said, This is for me,’” Sandy said.

Part of the catalyst that drove Sandy to volunteer was her own experience after one of her daughters was involved in a serious car accident.

“I know what it’s like to be family at a traumatic event,” she said. “Your senses are heightened; time is slowed.”

Sandy had to drive herself to the hospital and was asked by staff to notify family members of the other accident victims.

“I remember sitting in the family room all by myself, so lost. I didn’t know how the system worked.”

Now, Sandy is one of 22 TIP volunteers who act as a liaison between first responders and the patient’s family. “One of the big things we do is give questions (to first responders) to answer,” she said.

The local program is administered under the auspices of Community Counseling Center in Portland and is part of the national Trauma Intervention Program founded about 30 years ago on the West Coast.

The Community Counseling Center brought the founder of TIP to Portland about nine years ago to establish the local program because it “fit the niche of families needing support,” said Leslie Skillin, crisis team manager for TIP.

Sandy now spends much of her time volunteering as a dispatcher from her home, taking calls from first responders and alerting the volunteers on duty. TIP works with police departments from Cape Elizabeth, Portland, South Portland, Scarborough, Windham, Westbrook, Falmouth, Cumberland, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office – even the U.S. Marshal’s office and Maine Fish & Wildlife on occasion.

“Any volunteer that comes into the program, they have to go to any area we service,” Skillin said, who added in a perfect world, she would have twice as many volunteers. “Life happens for a volunteer like anyone else; we have to replenish the pool.”

Thirty volunteers “would be good” and “ideally, 40 would be fantastic,” allowing two people on duty for every shift around the clock.

Larger cities such as San Francisco and Seattle draw from larger populations, Skillin said.

“A smaller population is more challenging,” said Skillin. “It’s just a matter of getting the word out.”

“TIP volunteers come from all different walks of life, attorneys, homemakers, retired professionals, full time workers, business owners, as well as nurses and teachers,” said Skillin in a recent article published in the Sentry’s sister paper, the Scarborough Leader.

“TIP is there whenever a first responder recognizes that a traumatic event has occurred and a person is in need of emotional support,” said Scarborough Fire Chief B. Michael Thurlow in the Leader article. “The services of TIP volunteers are always voluntary and they never push any particular religious affiliation, although they can certainly assist in contacting the families’ spiritual support person if requested.”

Sandy said she’s seen just about every situation imaginable, but “most calls are surrounding death.” The average call lasts between three and four hours, but on rare occasions volunteers can stay with family members on a rotating basis for a day or longer.

“‘Til their support gets there,” Sandy said.

People who are visiting from out of state have special challenges.

“It’s tragic trying to get a support system at home,” she said.

Roxanne Wheeler of Cumberland said the woman who responded to Maine Medical Center after her brother was in a boating accident in Scarborough “was like a life preserver in that special room filled with chaos, unimaginable loss and confusion.”

Sandy said, “Taking notes is another huge thing we do.” TIP volunteers provide an invaluable service to family members who are too upset to process what they hear from medical professionals. One nurse told her it’s great if 25 percent of what is transmitted is recalled.

“Knowing I could ask her for details I was missing or misunderstanding was so important,” Wheeler said. “She very calmly recorded who spoke to us, their contact info and basics of each person in that special room.”

“TIP volunteers are people that really do care and want to help victims, families, the police, fire and emergency medical staff, so that everyone feels supported when really bad things happen,” Skillin said.

Sandy said volunteers try to anticipate what will be needed and have a “big bag of resources” that can include blankets for both adults and children, stuffed animals – even toothbrushes.

“But mostly it’s a caring presence,” she said.

Wheeler agreed.

“Having the TIP volunteer stay physically close to the family would be the most important thing I remember being so very helpful. She stayed right by my side until we all left the hospital several hours later.

“We were somehow comforted by Pam’s presence.”

Those interested in volunteer training or want more information can call Skillin at 553-9311 or visit www.tipmaine.org.

“If someone has the desire to do the work,” Skillin said, “then we want to make it happen for them.”

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