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Grief-stricken receive emotional first aid

Lynda Gallagher was there as a sobbing woman cradled her dead husband and told him how much she loved him, how much she would miss him.

She was there when the parents of a teen who died of a drug overdose first tried to deal with their shattered dreams, the promise of what might have been.

She also was there recently when a grieving Nevada State College student tried to make sense of the fact that her young roommate died in her sleep.

"No one should be alone when tragedy strikes," said Gallagher, 50, a volunteer with the Trauma Intervention Program of Southern Nevada, better known as TIP. "I guess you might call what we do emotional first aid. Often, you just listen. Other times you help them talk out their feelings. We’re really comforting people, not counseling them."

Often, she cries along with those she’s comforting. "It is part of being human," Gallagher said.

To Michael Murphy, the Clark County coroner, the Southern Nevada chapter of the national organization, founded in 1985, is particularly important because so many people have moved here and left family behind.

"For many people, the support system you need in a very difficult time simply isn’t here," Murphy said. "TIP helps us fill that gap."

The Las Vegas TIP chapter is the busiest in the country. In 2008, there were more than 1,000 calls for service; in the first six months of 2009, more than 500 calls for service.

The TIP team, which has 52 volunteers, is called by emergency first responders to the scenes of natural deaths, homicides, car accidents, suicides and fires. Around the clock, the volunteers’ goal is to be on the scene within 20 minutes.

They often explain to survivors, many of whom are in shock, why police are handling the situation as they are.

"At a crime scene it is often very difficult for loved ones because they have to be kept away from the body," Gallagher said. "They want to say goodbye, to be near them, but we explain that the scene must be preserved so that whoever committed the murder can be caught."

If necessary, TIP volunteers also help arrange for shelter, food and clothing for survivor victims; help notify other family members; serve as a liaison between the victims, their friends, law enforcement, emergency services and hospital personnel; and provide information about appropriate agencies for ongoing assistance.

Gallagher realized how necessary providing comfort is in the wake of her own crisis, when her husband suffered a serious head injury a few years ago.

"All my family was there," she said. "I’m not sure I could have handled it without their help. You’re in shock, and you can’t remember anything."

On Wednesday, Gallagher did something she seldom has time to do: Revisit a client she has helped.

At Nevada State College, she met with junior math major Magdalena, who has had a difficult time concentrating on her studies after the recent death of her roommate.

Out of concern that clients might be victimized by those who prey on individuals who have suffered a misfortune, TIP prefers that clients’ last names remain confidential.

When Gallagher and Magdalena met again, they hugged. "We probably talked for two or three hours" the day her roommate died, Gallagher said.

Magdalena said she left her roommate sleeping on the couch, as she often did.

The next time Magdalena saw her, the roommate was in the same position, but her legs and arms had turned blue. She was dead. She had a medical condition.

The emergency first responders didn’t have time to deal with her grief. Gallagher did.

"I saw her outside sitting by herself crying. I knew she needed someone."

Magdalena told Gallagher all about her roommate and about her own life.

"It really gave me some peace," Magdalena said. "Talking with someone who cares about how you’re feeling helps a lot."

Gallagher said she finds it most difficult to deal with situations in which seniors and the very young are involved.

On one call, a man in his 80s was "just weeping uncontrollably because the woman who was his wife for more than 60 years had died," she said. "I remember the Metro officer saying that we’ll have to come back for him in a month. It was like he had just lost his life."

When Gallagher comforted a mother who had lost her teenage son to an overdose, the woman kept screaming that her child wasn’t supposed to die before her. Gallagher remembers that she and the mother ended up talking about the good the boy had done in his life.

Too often, Gallagher said, she must work suicides.

"Anger and guilt are the two emotions you find," she said. If possible, she tries to focus only on the good moments the victim had with the family.

Usually TIP volunteers leave the area when the body is taken off the premises.

"We’re not there to give them the kind of help they’ll need in the long term, but we do try to help them find out where help is available," Gallagher said.

TIP volunteers generally give survivor victims a community resource guide at the scene. It deals with everything from support groups to phone numbers for airlines.

"In Las Vegas, we often help people from out of town," Gallagher said. "Their husband or wife may die here, and they have to deal with things like getting the body back to their hometown. We learn that kind of information."

Sitting outside a Starbucks recently near University Medical Center, Sherri Graves, the TIP crisis team manager, and Lorrie Carlyn, the assistant crisis team manager, talked about the kind of training volunteers receive before they start the regimen that sees them on call for three 12-hour shifts a month.

They go through 55 hours of training that give them insight into emotional trauma and the workings of emergency first responders. They learn about resources available for survivor victims. In addition, volunteers attend a three-hour educational meeting each month. Police, emergency responders and other professionals share their experience during training sessions.

Training for new volunteers begins in April. They are always needed because sometimes volunteers suffer burnout.

On March 16, the organization holds it Heroes with Heart fundraising luncheon at The Orleans. It honors 11 emergency responders and one citizen for outstanding work in the community.

"In this economy, we really need all the help we can get to keep this service going," Carlyn said.

Gallagher thinks she’ll continue being a TIP volunteer for the foreseeable future.

"There’s not a lot we can do for each other in this life. But I get personal satisfaction out of giving of myself when people really need someone to lean on."

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.

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