A Resident's Experience in Learning Stress Resilience

"I still remember the moment when I first learned of the earthquake in Sichuan, China on May 12, 2008. Sichuan is my home province . The deadly earthquake took more than 80,000 people’s lives. Fortunately my family survived, but I cannot possibly imagine how much they were traumatized by this unbelievable disaster. When I heard many school students died in the earthquake, I decided to go back home to help. With support from former program director Dr. Kirwin and present director Dr. Rohrbaugh, I took a three-week vacation to go back to Sichuan with Dr. Heather Goff, an assistant professor at YPH. We decided to hold workshops for 'school-based post-trauma intervention' in three cities with the most severely damaged areas. Workshops were sponsored by Professor Lin Chen, the director of the National Key Laboratory of Cognitive Science in the Chinese Institutes of Academy.

"We fortunately had support from well-known PTSD experts at Yale, Dr. Southwick and Dr. Marans, in the Child Study Center. Taking their advice and guidance, Dr. Goff and I constructed the syllabus for the workshop. Our goal was to help school teachers understand the psychological needs for their students, normal and abnormal reactions to earthquake, and basic counseling skills. Our team included one coordinator from Professor Chen’s lab, local government staff and two voluntary translators. One of them was a third-year medical school student from Cambridge University in London who came back home for summer vacation. In three weeks, we had trained a total of 268 middle school and high school teachers. At the beginning of each workshop, we asked everyone to say a few words about themselves. Without exception, everyone talked about their experience during the earthquake. Although I learned much information from the media before I went back to China (my parents compiled two volumes of earthquake news from a variety of newspapers and magazines), I was still shocked by the magnitude of the tragedy. I was deeply moved by stories told from people’s own experiences. One day, when we were in a workshop, several teachers suddenly jumped up. Neither Dr. Goff nor I realized that it was an aftershock until someone shouted 'Earthquake! Earthquake!' Desks and lamps were shaking for seconds. Nobody left, the workshop continued. Heather and I used it as an example to teach feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.

"Three years passed by since my trip to Sichuan. Many people and their stories are still in my mind. The person whom I miss the most is a 7 year-old elementary school girl. This little girl survived from the school building collapsing. However, some of her friends died. She came to the workshop with her mother and quietly sat in the classroom playing with her mother’s cell phone. During the break, her mother told us that her daughter had changed to a different person since the earthquake. Prior to the earthquake, she was very happy and outgoing, the most popular girl in the school. She became quiet, shy and fearful, and could not be alone for any second after the earthquake. Her mother had to take her to the workshop. She asked her mother to buy her a bottle when they were shopping together, which made her mother worrisome. We did not get a chance to talk to her or her mother as we tried to cover as many subjects as we could. The next day, the little girl, wearing a bright yellow skirt, came with her mother again. By the end of the workshop, she told her mother, 'Mom, I am normal. I am not crazy. I just acted younger than I am.' She approached Dr. Goff and I and asked to take a picture together. Before I went back to Sichuan, I doubted whether or not I could help people who were deeply traumatized and suffered so much from their loss. This little girl gave me courage to complete our mission. She taught me that people, even as young as 7 years old, could be resilient.

"It was an unforgettable experience from my residency training and my professional life. I learned more from those earthquake survivors than any textbooks and papers that I have read. I am always grateful to everyone who helped me accomplish this workshop. My thoughts are with those dedicated teachers and their young brave students."

Dr. Ke Xu, Yale Psychiatry Faculty