Constance – In her own words
‘How does anyone become an expert in crisis management?
I came to it the way most people come to their profession – completely by accident.
In the 1980s, I was working in a large brokerage firm in Asheville, North Carolina. It was October 1987 to be exact. In one day, the Dow Jones industrial average went down by the largest percentage it ever has. That record (percentage drop) still holds. To say that people were frightened and panicked would be an understatement.
A few weeks after this event, one of the customers at my firm went into one of our offices in Miami with a gun. He killed the manager, shot and paralyzed his broker and then killed himself.
Our clients who were already upset about their money were now afraid to come to the office – and by the way we were afraid for them to come to our office. We had clients who were really rattled but I wanted to talk to them and reassure them that over time things would be fine. Rather than wait for them to come to me, I went to their homes. I sat at kitchen tables and talked to my clients about how they felt and their fears. I realized that I could be very helpful to people, that I had patience I didn’t realize and that I felt a sense of accomplishment in these conversations.
A couple of weeks later I realized something really big – I was in the wrong job.
Fast forward a few years. I went back to school where I earned a PhD in psychology. During my residency in Augusta, Georgia I had a tremendously diverse experience working in four hospitals which are part of a consortium. I learned about how to help people recover from disasters, how to help patients and their families in crisis.
The most memorable patient I worked with was a 16 year-old boy who had been in a car accident, He was thrown from a jeep while riding around (goofing around to be exact) in a jeep with no roof. His spine had been severed and the surgeon told him, his parents and me that he wasn’t going to walk again. He was of course upset, but his parents were utterly inconsolable. His parents spent a lot of time in his room and they cried openly much of the time.
If you’re reading this you are probably thinking, well of course. But the surgeon in charge of the case was very bothered about what their parents were saying, they were crying, praying, and people from their church were coming into his room to pray.
And the surgeon said to me, ‘You’ve got to help them get it, they are in denial’ – but it was only two days since they had learned their son was never going to walk again. I thought the surgeon’s reaction was her problem, but I wasn’t going to be effective intervening with her. Instead I began meeting with the parents and their friends from church in a different location. At the same time, I met with the patient in his room, every day. Gradually, their grief and angst began to subside and was replaced with planning for the future.
After a few weeks, the patient (who was by this time my favorite person to visit in the hospital) was transferred to a rehabilitation facility in Atlanta, Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital which is a well-known and fantastic place. By the time he was released to the care of others, the change in his outlook and the change in his parents’ outlook was amazing. They’d gone from being terrified and gripped with fear – and yes denial which was completely understandable – to really accepting it and looking forward to their son’s future.
As I reflected on this patient and my time at Merrill Lynch and helping people through the crisis of the downturn I realized the work I should do that would be so meaningful would be to help people find their courage and tap into the resilience they already have, when in a crisis.