Thirty years ago today I went through a life-changing experience – the savage destruction of an F-3 tornado. The memories are so vivid they never go away. The same is true for the life lessons you can learn from traumatic experiences.
The event itself is well documented. From the Kalamazoo (Michigan) Gazette: On May 13, 1980, a massive tornado hit the city of Kalamazoo. When the storm passed, five people were dead, 70 were injured and $50 million was the damage estimate. Michigan State Police, the Michigan National Guard and other public safety people called in to help seemed unanimous in their praise for the citizens of Kalamazoo. They’d come to stave off looting or any of the other kinds of civil disruptions that have been known to follow catastrophes of this sort elsewhere. They found virtually none of that, and instead watched people helping each other any way they could. If you lived here you felt awfully good about how your community was able to get along under siege.
I worked for a 500-bed major medical center that was directly in the path of the tornado. We were fortunate in having about 20 minutes notice that the tornado was headed our way, and were able to take precautions to protect patients and then take cover ourselves. You could both feel and hear the tornado as it passed through. As soon as it was safe we began the process of caring for victims and recovery. Scientists said after the fact that the tornado’s path was altered by the impact of hitting several large downtown buildings and the shift was just enough to keep it from hitting the hospital.
Like many natural disasters, it’s difficult to put into words how widespread and far reaching an impact this had. You can read the history books and news accounts for details. From an economic perspective the recovery took 10 years. From a human perspective the recovery is lifelong as are the lessons.
A few of the things I learned:
1. Preparation is critical. Our crisis preparation drills meant being able to shift instantaneously from being tornado victims to being part of a recovery team supporting survivors. The transition was seamless and automatic.
2. Human beings will rise to incredible levels of kindness and support when given the opportunity if you have leadership that paves the way for this type of response.
3. As individuals we have incredible inner strength available to us if we choose to tap into it and use it. One of the best ways to access this strength is by thinking about the larger picture and not just one’s personal fears and needs.
4. You can’t go backwards. All the “what if’s?” in the world can’t change the fact that a tornado hit that day.
5. As hard as a catastrophe is when you are going through it, you will come out of it at some point and go on. You can choose to view yourself as a “victim” or you can choose to view yourself as a “survivor”…the difference is in your own mind.
In my everyday life today I am someone who’s living with cancer. People constantly ask me why I’m “calm” and why I’m not “falling apart” and then tell me what they think they would do if they got a serious medical condition. The Kalamazoo tornado enabled me to experience some of the very best, and very worst, aspects of life and human nature. I apply the lessons learned from that experience to my health, and you can too:
1. Arm yourself with information and be your own best health advocate.
2. Expect and look for medical professionals with the right attitude who support your recovery. It may take more time and work, but your recovery depends on it.
3. Don’t go it alone. Share with others. Everyone benefits from sharing what they learn while undergoing medical care and treatment.
4. You can't undo something like getting a cancer diagnosis, but you can learn to live with it. Stay in the moment. Realize everything is temporary at some point, and even the most horrible, gut wrenching medical treatment you may have to endure is just a moment. Don’t get stuck in that moment. Keeping a vision of where you want to go is what’s going to help you get past the hurdles.
5. Form your own vision of what you are in your personal health journey – teacher, warrior, activist, seeker…whatever is right for you. People who know nothing about your illness or medical treatment will be more than happy to apply labels to you if you let them – don’t. The choice is one you need to make yourself and then you need to educate others on how to treat you.