Franciscan sister's retreats help first responders deal with trauma

by Jean Gonzalez


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It is never good to hear a chief of police ask the question, "What are you doing to my people?" Even if you are a Franciscan sister who serves as a police chaplain.

When Sr. Anne Dougherty heard then Tampa, Florida, chief of police Jane Castor say that to her, she admitted she suffered from an "oh no," butterflies-in-the-stomach moment. Especially since she knew the chief was talking about her people — police officers — who had recently attended the Operation Restore retreat staffed by Dougherty out of the Franciscan Center in Tampa.

"I thought, oh no, did they hate it? Are they complaining about it?" Dougherty, a Franciscan Sister of Allegany, New York, recalled. She asked the chief what she exactly meant. "And she said, 'Well, (the officers) are coming back thanking me for sending them.' "

That exchange brought Dougherty a chuckle, a sigh of relief and a resolve to continue offering the retreats that began in 2015. Operation Restore is a post-trauma training for first responders that serves to restore and renew the retreatants, six people at a time. Dougherty and her retreat partners offer firefighters and law enforcement officers —police, deputies, Homeland Security or Federal Bureau of Investigation — a safe, confidential environment to work through their most critical incidents and process the cumulative stress of dealing with the job and their interpersonal relationships and experiences.

"Joy is all about Franciscanism," said the 65-year-old native of Philadelphia. "I receive so much joy when I see the smile on (retreatants') faces. I'm always so grateful that the folks who came are able to fully participate."

Starting the training

Although originally from Philadelphia, Dougherty has called Tampa home since 1980. She is well known in the Tampa Bay nonprofit, education and faith communities. In 1990, she was founding executive director of Francis House, an interfaith center for people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. Although almost three decades have passed, she still views those experiences through the eyes of a social justice advocate who recognized the need to offer compassion and respect of Christ to those shunned by society because of a disease.

Dougherty, who earned a master's degree in counseling psychology and a doctorate in pastoral counseling, is also well known for her work in crisis stress management, police chaplaincy, and spiritual direction. In 2012, she was assigned as president and chief executive officer of Franciscan Center.

When her congregational leader asked her to take over the center, she challenged Dougherty to use her experience and education to incorporate pastoral care support for officers.

"I thought, well, I am a mental health counselor and we do retreats," said Dougherty, who is a chaplain to both the Tampa Police Department and the FBI in Tampa. "At that time, there were several area police officers who had been killed in a two-and-a-half year time period. I thought, 'We could do a post-trauma retreat.' "

Dougherty got with her longtime collaborator Rick Malivuk  — a Lutheran minister, counselor, Vietnam veteran, and Tampa Fire Rescue chaplain — to develop a retreat format. Both are also members of the Tampa Bay Regional Critical Incident Stress Team. The duo brainstormed and then met with then police chief Castor to introduce their ideas.

"She said, 'Could you start the retreat tomorrow and I want to go,' " Dougherty recalls.

Start with the head, then heart and gut

Held at the Franciscan Center, the four-day, three-night retreat incorporates the work of counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, as well as trained professionals of a technique to treat post-stress called EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.

Retreat participants first meet with Dougherty for "intake." She explains how the retreat is broken up into seven steps that cover the physiological and emotional ramifications of stress. She also asks the prospective retreatants to think of three critical incidents that cause stressors in their lives.

"The retreat starts with the brain, the head. Then it gets into the heart and the gut," said Dougherty, who estimated some 200 first responders have attended the retreats. "That can be challenging for them. No cop wants anybody to get into their heart and gut. They want their vest on their heart. But I try to give them the heads up when I personally meet them beforehand. There shouldn't be any surprises."

Critical incidents could be work related or in personal relationships. Grief, loss, broken trust and broken loyalty weigh especially hard on first responders because it is such an integral part of their lives, personally and professionally.

One work-related issue led an officer who worked the night of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in June 2016 to contact Operation Restore. He, like many first responders, had a rough time dealing in the aftermath. Unable to get help locally, he Googled "help for police officers with post trauma" and Operation Restore popped up.

"The phone number was there and he called me," Dougherty recalled. "He said, 'I need help and I don't know where to go.' So I said, 'Come tomorrow and bring your wife.' I didn't want him to drive back alone."

Getting to the heart

Thanks to the intake meeting, retreatants begin thinking about what needs to be reflected upon and healed during the retreat. Because participants will be discussing personal matters, one of the first orders of business at the retreat is confidentiality.

The first topic of discussion is post-traumatic stress and how it affects the brain. Using her professional contacts, Dougherty invites a psychiatrist who talks about medication and shows MRIs of brains that reveal how stress actually physically shrinks the brain. That information resonates with first responders, Dougherty said.

Felicia Pecora, a sergeant with the Tampa Police Department who attended a retreat in 2015, agreed. At the time, she was suffering from unusual weight loss. In a month's time, she had lost 30 pounds and couldn't figure out why.

"I was shell-shocked," said the 48-year-old, who has served as an officer for 18 years. "My central nervous system on high alert," she said. "I didn't know how to stop it. I would just pray: 'Help me get through this.' "

Seeing that part of the presentation gave Pecora a missing puzzle piece to her physical and emotional health. As the retreat continued, Pecora discovered more thought-provoking educational nuggets, including the point made over and over — stress is a normal reaction to an abnormal experience.

Pecora was one of six police supervisors in the retreat. When asked how it felt to open up during the retreat, Pecora smiled and admitted the officers told each other if things got heavy, they would substitute talking about their real trauma with a "I'm sad because my dog died" story.

But that never happened because the men and women wanted to find resolution for themselves and learn techniques to help their subordinates overcome post-trauma. Fortunately, the Tampa Police Department has a critical incident unit where officers can process stressful on-the-job situations.

"For me, it's the sounds of things that can stay with me. I remember the sounds of a lady who was sobering up after she was raped. The way her voice changed as she came to the realization. The agony in her voice," she recalled. "But I talked it out with the unit and I could sleep at night."

While the critical incidence unit has its function, sometimes cumulative stressors accumulate unknowingly. This could cause sleepless nights or physical and behavioral changes. Pecora, who served in the U.S. Army for 12 years before becoming a police officer, said it could be a challenge to face those issues and also admit them in front of colleagues.

"When you are a rookie, either as a soldier or a cop, the first thing on your mind is accomplishing the mission," she said. "As you become more experienced, you become appreciative of the emotional side of things. … [You] realize you have to talk about feelings to move forward."

Forgiveness, vulnerability and the EMDR

Dougherty loves the Sabbath Room at the Franciscan Center. But in the last three years, the room has earned other monikers from Operation Restore participants, such as the cry room or the DT room (short for detox). Pecora recalled the first time she entered the Sabbath Room.

"I knew it was going to be bad when I saw all those tissue boxes," she recalled with a laugh.

"And the candy," Dougherty added. "There always needs to be lots of chocolate."

It is in the Sabbath Room where officers write letters of forgiveness to themselves. While neither Dougherty nor Pecora would say specifically what the letters might entail, they are immensely personal, and once written, participants are asked to share them. This is a part of the retreat where confidentiality is stressed by staffers.

Many emotions can be exposed in the four-day retreat, two of which are vulnerability and control. Dougherty recalled how a firefighter found a turning point during the retreat when he realized being vulnerable was OK.

"It was like he had permission to be vulnerable, and it was a relief to him," Dougherty said.

Pecora agreed wholeheartedly. "For cops, we are trained to be in control. You can't be vulnerable," she said. "The only thing between the world and total chaos is you," she said. "But you have to realize that you can be vulnerable. It's part of who you are, and knowing that makes life more livable."

"A lot of police officers take on stuff that isn't theirs to take on," Dougherty added, "and that's when I have to be reverend mother and say, 'Stop. You do not have control over that.' Giving up that responsibility, that control, that fault, can be the hardest thing for them."

During those emotional moments retreatants also form special bonds.

"You can see it, especially after the forgiveness letter," Dougherty said. "When they share it, there is this turning point that we ease into. The letter offers a chance for them to unload what is on their hearts in a safe spot."

Then they really examine critical incidents, first as a snapshot, which might be an image, or as with many firefighters, a sound or a smell. They identify symptoms and reactions, whether emotional, physical or behavioral — sleepless nights, or outbursts of anger or depression or use of alcohol or drugs.

The heart of the exercise is identifying the worst part of the incident, which becomes the focus of another Sabbath Room activity — eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.

Trained facilitators in EMDR use a technique developed in the late 1980s by Francine Shapiro, an American psychologist to help with trauma.

"It is one of the best techniques to help with trauma," said Dougherty, who first learned about the process during her schooling for counseling in the 1990s. "It really is a miracle."

Dougherty does not practice the EMDR technique, but brings in trained practitioners and therapists. During EMDR, retreatants picture an image of the trauma, which might include other sensory memories such as taste, sound or smell. As described in a website for EMDR humanitarian assistance programs, the practitioner leads patients "in a series of lateral eye movements while the patient simultaneously focuses on various aspects" of the critical incident. According to the website, "The left-right eye movements in EMDR therapy are a form of  'bilateral stimulation,' " which promotes resolving the issues.

In the briefest terms, Pecora described her experience as being told to picture the image in her head, as if it was an actual picture on her desk. She then was told to pick it up and put it away. Throughout the hour and 15 minutes, she continued this type of bilateral stimulation. While the eye movements served to make her a little dizzy, her practitioner used an alternate form — taps to the back of her hands.

"When you're done, you don't feel any better. You feel it when you go to sleep and you notice the image isn't there like it usually is," Pecora said. "I remember thinking, 'Where are the thoughts? They are supposed to be here.' But they weren't. And as time went on, even the thought of questioning why they weren't there went away, too. It was like the incident was far removed."

Along with continuing to help first responders, Dougherty said there are ideas to perhaps develop a similar program for U.S. veterans. And there is another population that she hopes to reach.

"I could love to see this type of outreach for sisters coming back from the missions," said Dougherty, who has made presentations about her religious community in Rwanda and Tanzania. "Some of the missioners have seen really, really bad stuff. Violence. Small armies invading towns. Loss. Heartbreak. I think this would be a great retreat for the sisters, and also the lay missioners, brothers and priests, for when they come back to the States."

When she thinks of the work of the Holy Spirit, she is reminded again of the officer from the Pulse nightclub shooting who sought help and found Operation Restore from a Google search.

"After Pulse, he had felt that God had left him and he was alone. But during his EMDR, he realized God was with him. It was very powerful," Dougherty said. "When he sent back his 90-day review, he wrote a letter to me and it read, 'Because of that (retreat) experience I've decided I want to go to the seminary when I retire so I can help other people.' How beautiful is that? Truly the Spirit at work."

[Jean Gonzalez is a staff editor and journalist for the Florida Catholic newspaper in Orlando. She has more than two decades of experience in the Catholic press, especially concentrating on farmworker issues and advocating against the death penalty.]