Iowa Responders Share Grief Over Medical Chopper Crash Deaths

MASON CITY, Iowa -- The North Iowa caregivers who died in Wednesday’s medical helicopter crash near Ventura were loved not only by family, but by colleagues in the health care field who went right back to their jobs the next day.

But there are others who have volunteered their time to “care for the caregivers” grieving the loss of flight nurse Shelly Lair-Langenbau, 44, of Hanlontown; paramedic Russell Piehl, 48, Forest City, and Med-Trans pilot Gene Grell, 53.

“When you have especially traumatic situations, a lot of the folks who responded knew these people,” said Pat Wilson, clinical director of a North Iowa critical incident stress management team. “It’s tremendously traumatizing.”

Wilson, a licensed independent Mason City social worker, was called Wednesday night from the accident scene by Mason City Fire Chief Bob Platts, one of 25 members of the critical incident team. They began plans for a debriefing session for caregivers affected by the crash.

The debriefing, held Thursday evening at the Clear Lake Fire Department, drew 55 first responders. A similar debriefing in Algona drew 24 from that area.

These sessions have been available to first responders in North Iowa free of charge since the mid-1990s, Wilson said.

Their purpose is to care for the caregivers so they will not get burned out by a demanding and traumatizing job.

“It isn’t therapy,” Wilson said. “It gives an opportunity to talk about how you’re doing.”

Participants are encouraged to share what they have experienced and what their role was at the scene. They may choose to describe images that stick in their minds, including sights, sounds or smells.

Today, approximately one-fourth of the critical incident team members are mental health professionals, Wilson said. The rest are first-responders such as law enforcement, firefighting, EMS and nursing professionals. Team members undergo a structured training process.

Cerro Gordo County Sheriff Kevin Pals said he encourages his deputies and other personnel to take part in debriefings to help them deal with things most people never have to witness.

“We want to have employees who are not only in good physical health but also good mental health,” Pals said.

The images of a trauma scene can stay with you forever, Pals said.

He recalled how, several years ago, an employee was having a difficult time coping with an incident that took place in the jail. Pals believes the debriefing given to employees after the experience saved that employee’s career.

Platts, who was among the first responders at the scene of the Jan. 2 helicopter crash, said he doesn’t usually respond unless an incident involves a variety of agencies and a command staff is needed at the site.

The Fire Department works very closely with Mercy-North Iowa in responding to accidents and other emergencies, Platts said.

“We have certain calls that we automatically launch the helicopter. We see these people almost on a daily basis.”

Dealing with the emotion and trauma of attending to an accident that involves people he knows is difficult, Platts acknowledged.

“It’s my faith that gets me through this.”

Although Mercy’s Emergency Department employees and first responders are the immediate focus, a tragedy such as the recent accident affects the entire organization, said Mark Peltan, director of Mercy Behavioral Services.

“Something happens that shakes up your confidence in the safety of things,” said Peltan, a clinical psychologist. “It interrupts your emotional equilibrium. This is the kind of thing that usually doesn’t happen in your lifetime.”

Mercy-North Iowa provides an employee assistance program for free counseling services at any time for employees and their immediate family members who request it.

“We also encourage employees to be supportive of one another,” Peltan said.

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