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Tracking the Rescuers’ Trauma

Even before the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell, Sarah Atlas and her canine partner, Anna, a black-faced German shepherd, were deployed by New Jersey’s Task Force One Urban Search and Rescue. By the end of the day on September 11, they were at Ground Zero, where they stayed for ten days in a fruitless search for survivors.

“The [NYFD] people who called us had been killed,” Atlas considered as she surveyed the tons and acres of wreckage. “Nobody’s going to be alive.” Fires burned and molten steel flowed in the pile of ruins still settling beneath her feet. She wore a respirator to filter out the smoke, dust, and fumes, but Anna worked without a mask to sniff out places where the broken dead lay. Anna is a live-find dog, but she developed a “truly intent stare” that Atlas came to recognize as her response to catching the scent of a corpse. Mostly they found parts.

“These dogs were exposed to huge amounts of known toxins and unthinkable amounts of unknown ones,” says Cynthia Otto, an associate professor in the vet school. Otto is leading a three-year study of the dogs, funded largely by the American Kennel Club.

Anna is part of the study and has been diagnosed with discospondylitis, a bacterial infection in the spinal column. A young dog, she can no longer climb and jump, and has been retired from search and rescue. “The first six weeks after we got home,” reports Atlas, “she just sat around and stared off into space. She’s still not the happy-go-lucky dog she was.”

But it’s not just the animals. The handlers may have worn masks and respirators but that doesn’t mean they were completely protected. When she returned to her home in New Jersey, Atlas began having nightmares, couldn’t remember things, and struggled to find words—even to just say hello. “I couldn’t find my house,” she recalls, “and when I pulled into my driveway the burgundy [walls] hurt my eyes, because all we saw for ten days was gray.” Soon after, she was hospitalized with pneumonia and later diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Melissa Hunt, G’90, Gr’96, associate director of clinical training in the psychology department, was delivering a talk at the vet school about some research she’d been doing on people whose pets had died. Otto approached her after the lecture and invited Hunt to sign on to monitor the emotional health of the dog handlers.

The study uses surveys and interviews to probe for psychological aftershocks that sometimes follow upheavals of extreme stress. “We already have statistically significant results,” Hunt states of comparisons with K-9 search specialists who were not dispatched to Ground Zero or the Pentagon. “The people who were deployed have more depressive symptoms, more anxious symptoms, and more post-traumatic stress symptoms. There’s no question that having gone through those experiences has taken a psychological toll.”

Researchers are conducting structured phone interviews to determine whether the hallmark symptoms being reported—insomnia, nightmares, feelings of numbness, fatigue, being more easily startled or more anxious about the well-being of their dogs—add up to the formal diagnostic criteria for PTSD and other disorders. “Eyeballing the interview data” suggests that many handlers have suffered emotionally from the experience, Hunt says, but most are not presenting a “clinically significant dysfunction.”

Initially, Hunt assumed that psychic trauma would come from seeing gristly sites, but that is turning out to be not quite right. Those who cope best seem to be handlers who have been able to pull meaning out of their search efforts, either those working with cadaver-find dogs who had “successful” missions or those with live-find dogs who could invest recovering the dead with significance. One handler of a dog trained to sniff out survivors reported finding a “piece of flesh,” which he knew would lead to the identification of a family member through DNA testing. “He had a framework for understanding that he had done something that was really valuable,” observes Hunt, “something that was going to be very helpful to living people.”

The study’s findings are preliminary, and any long-term reverberations are only just beginning to be felt. “I think what we’re going to learn from this study is a lot about human vulnerability and human resilience,” Hunt affirms.

“It doesn’t seem real,” Atlas muses, “and yet it does. I’ve been back twice.”

At press time, we learned that Anna had died on August 2. —Editor


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