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Leading Trauma Expert Goes to New Orleans

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Though she is trained in helping victims of traumatic situations survive and thrive, it still hurts Paula Madrid to see suffering. As director of The Resiliency Program at Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness and coordinator of mental health services for Operation Assist for victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Madrid has her work cut out for her. “Everything I see just breaks my heart,” she says of her twice-a-month visits to FEMA trailer parks in the Gulf Coast. “I’m constantly going from a state of sadness to being furious to being disappointed, then empowered, then powerless. It’s been very difficult emotionally and professionally, but it’s an amazing opportunity to do what I was trained to do and do it well.”

Madrid, a Columbia, South America native, earned a PhD in psychology in 2001 at the University of Hartford. Her dissertation was on processing bilingual individuals’ traumatic memories to expedite healing. “I’ve always been very interested in language and the fact that through verbal expression of your inner feelings, you can actually heal and feel better,” Madrid explains.

In the days after September 11, that expertise in trauma and language led her to the Children’s Health Fund, which, through the Community Support Program, brought mobile medical units to Ground Zero. “We realized there was a tremendous need for psychosocial services, support, and case management” for underserved populations in New York, Madrid says. In 2003, the program merged with a Columbia University program called Common Ground, and Madrid became director. Common Ground would later become The Resiliency Program. Even more than five years after September 11, those impacted still need services, Madrid explains. “Initially [we did] a lot of crisis intervention, but over the years, it’s been more resiliency building. People are not necessarily symptomatic, though many are and didn’t get services,” she says. “People who have been in denial or repressing because this has been hard to deal with are now showing up and saying, ‘I’ve been suffering.’”

Mostly Hispanic clients show up for psychotherapy, support groups, and workshops, and Madrid and other staff visit hospitals, clinics, and schools to talk about trauma treatment and understanding the world of traumatized children. She has seen firsthand how the organization’s services have helped; for example, the widows no longer want to sit and talk about their losses, she says. Instead, they want to go to the park or a play, live their lives.

After hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the Gulf Coast, Madrid and colleagues went to Houston to offer their services. They realized that again, due to the extent of the trauma, they had their work cut out for them. Operation Assist was created, with mobile medical units of nurses, doctors, social workers, and therapists sent to Biloxi, Mississippi, and New Orleans. Today, Operation Assist operates in Baton Rouge through Louisiana State University, New Orleans through Tulane University, and Mississippi through Coastal Family Health.

For Operation Assist, Madrid also created 2,000 Coping Boxes. “I realized we needed to do something for the children of the Gulf Coast,” she says, adding that the boxes, which look like lunchboxes, include toys, crayons, notepads, and stickers distributed to pediatricians, FEMA parks, and through the mobile units. With additional funds, Madrid says, she could make 2,000 more. “These are things children can use to start talking and feel better,” she explains.

Since October 2005, Madrid also has offered more than twenty training sessions in six cities to school-based mental health professionals who themselves suffered trauma during the hurricanes. Watching victims heal is rewarding, she says. “I feel so fortunate. I’m very lucky to do exactly what I want to do, she says. “We are reaching a ton of people and we’re making a difference.”


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