When terrorists struck 14 Riverside Drive in Nairobi last week, emergency response teams did a commendable job.
Security forces moved in to secure the area and evacuate hostages, and medical teams were on site to provide emergency care to the injured and transfer them to hospital.
The bereaved families require emotional support to deal with the pain of losing their loved ones, while those who were evacuated require psychotherapy to come to terms with the traumatic experience. But who is looking out for our first responders?
The disciplined forces are trained to take a bullet for us; to be the wall between life and death when staring at the end of the barrel.
It is not that they are fearless, but that they look fear in the eye and stare it down, in order to do their job.
Healthcare workers are trained to deal with death every day. It is not that they become numb to it, but rather, they realise that if they do not roll up their sleeves, glove up and get bloody, their patients will surely die.
They must suspend their horror at seeing body parts dismembered and fight to put the patient together again.
I was thinking about first responders, and especially Red Cross volunteers, because of my friend Karanja, a young and dedicated man who responded to emergencies as a Red Cross volunteer during the 2007/2008 post-election violence.
Paso, as his friends call him, was stationed in the cauldron – the North Rift – that was boiling out of control. He spent three weeks evacuating casualties and became a near permanent feature at the mortuary.
DEATH IN ALL COLOURS
Evacuating burn victims from the Kiambaa Church, decomposing bodies from maize fields and youth whose lives had been ended by bullets in informal settlements in Eldoret, he saw pain and death in all colours.
Trying to lift the body of burn victims, the flesh slid off the bone in his grip. He pulled babies from the arms of decapitated mothers who had tried to protect them from the horrors being meted out on them.
While he was struggling to help those in distress, his own family was camped out in the biting cold, at the local police station 100 kilometres away from home. They had lost everything when their house was torched, only narrowly escaping with their lives.
When evacuations were done, Karanja hit rock bottom in one swoop. He fell ill from the underlying unresolved trauma. It took nearly two weeks to restore his physical health, and years to achieve a semblance of psychological peace.
To date, Karanja cannot watch even a simple lancing of a boil. Seeing anything that inflicts pain knocks the wind out of him. Volunteers like Karanja make the majority of Red Cross responders.
TRAUMA IS REAL
Many are young people well-trained in emergency response, and who will move to other careers in future. They may not have the benefit of the mental cushion against the trauma that comes from the emergency response work they do.
The trauma they suffer is real. The scenes they must deal with evoke real horror. They get to take in the whole scene and not just snapshots as the rest of us will. They carry these images home on a daily basis and as they go about their business.
We highly commend the Kenya Red Cross for the massive efforts they put to stand in the gap for us as Kenyans. They are singularly holding together an entire service (emergency response) that should be a government function under the Ministry of Health.
We hail the young volunteers, who give their all, to serve us in our times of need; sacrificing their youth for a lifetime of deep mental scars.
It must not be in vain. We must support them by providing a proper framework for debriefing these young souls regularly as they carry out their mandate.