In June, Hamas militants in Gaza began firing rockets into Israel. The Israelis retaliated with airstrikes on Gaza. The explosives rained down on Israel. Bombs rained down on Gaza. People died. Fear and tension reigned on both sides until a cease-fire went into effect in late August.
In Modesto, Irit Goldman followed the news from her native country – where her sister and 91-year-old mother still live – via the Internet on her notepad. Goldman is a psychotherapist who specializes in treating post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, many of her patients here are veterans who fought in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.
She understands the emotional scars of war, not just on the combatants but also on victims caught in the crossfire. And she recognizes that the first responders – anyone from EMTs to nurses to other psychologists and psychiatrists – can take only so much of dealing with other people’s pain before they, too, need help.
So, as the cease-fire neared – the Palestinian Ministry of Health reported 5,226 Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, 4,691 rockets and mortars launched at Israel, more than 2,100 people killed in Gaza and 73 Israeli dead including seven civilians by Aug. 28 – Goldman went online and contacted agencies in Israel to volunteer her services.
“I was sitting here treating people when my people in Israel needed help,” she said. She arranged for colleague Cheryl Fink to see some of her patients locally and set up times to talk with others via Skype while she was overseas.
Five days later, on Sept. 2, she landed in Tel Aviv with plans to visit the kibbutzes (settlements) to help those who had helped others. Over the next 16 days and in numerous places including her former hometown of Ashkelon, she employed a treatment called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing to help 41 people work through their conditions so they could return to helping others.
“Fear, flashbacks, night terrors, they get locked into the (small part) of the brain,” Goldman explained. That smaller part is called the reptilian brain. The treatment uses electronic stimulation to help bring those fears out to the neocortex, which is the part of the brain that processes speech, logic and higher thinking stills, she said. It draws those fears and emotional traumas locked in the smaller reptilian brain out to where they can be understood, processed and neutralized, allowing these people to regain control and return to their duties.
Goldman worked 10-hour days treating the overworked, overloaded and overwhelmed, then gave more of her time in the evenings to help other victims. In most cases, she and her patients made tremendous progress in just two hours. One needed six hours to break down the PTSD symptoms.
“I was treating a person who couldn’t function anymore,” Goldman said, “who could now treat 40 others. It created a ripple effect, but it was grueling work. I didn’t expect the level of trauma.”
One patient told Goldman she felt as if her soul was cracked and didn’t know how to put it back together. Another, she said, felt so bad for the innocent victims in Gaza that she wanted to go there to help the wounded children.
“She would have been shot,” Goldman said.
Just an hour after Goldman left one community Sept. 16, a single rocket launched from Gaza struck it, she said.
“It was a rude awakening,” she said. “You don’t take life for granted.”
In Sderot, Goldman treated a woman who bore the weight of fear for 14 years, a woman whose child had jumped out of her car and run into the kindergarten classroom, only to watch as a rocket exploded between the building and where she was parked. The child was unharmed, but the mom couldn’t get past the moment.
“She lost it,” Goldman said. “She was curled up in ball. She would dream at night that bombs were falling, then get the kids up and drive them to a bomb shelter.”
After two hours of treatment, the woman regained her composure, telling Goldman, “I haven’t smiled in 14 years. You have given me new life.”
In Ashkelon, she saw the apartment where she’d once lived before coming to the United States. It had been damaged when a rocket hit a nearby building.
One patient emailed Goldman to say she still doesn’t know why she responded so quickly, only that the EMDR treatment is working for her.
“It’s really amazing,” the patient wrote. “I don’t understand it. I process events differently. Instead of reacting traumatically either inside or out, the same experiences make me sad or help me get distance.”
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, began Wednesday. In July, Israelis discovered that Hamas had built a series of tunnels into Israel to attack during the holiday. That plan thwarted, Palestinian and Israeli officials scheduled negotiations for Tuesday but decided to put them off until October. The cease-fire has held so far; a precarious truce, but a truce nonetheless.
Back home in Modesto, Goldman monitors the news from Israel with greater imagery and understanding of what’s happening there.
“It was quite an experience,” she said. “I was humbled to see the resilience of the people in Israel. I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment in bringing normalcy to 41 people who will bring normalcy to 40 others.”
Two hours at a time.