New Canaan will play host to a fundraiser next week for an organization that provides a critical service to first responders here in town and the wider area.
Formed in the wake of the Christmas Day 2011 fire in Stamford that killed three little girls and their grandparents, the nonprofit Trauma Response Team includes therapists who educate first responders about trauma, hold critical incident stress debriefings following difficult cases, and offer therapies such as EMDR (all team members are EMDR-certified) to help those police officers, firefighters, EMTs, dispatchers, Animal Control officers and others recover from their immeasurably important and often stressful jobs.
In June, we spoke to one Trauma Response Team board member who’s well known to New Canaanites. Bonnie Rumilly grew up in town and joined New Canaan Emergency Medical Services (then NCVAC) at age 17, rising to the rank of captain during the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a licensed clinical social worker and therapist who also runs her own private practice, specializing in first responders.
Rumilly noted during our talk that the types of people who become first responders are, by nature, civic-minded helpers who “are coming to that volunteerism or that paid job with their own background and something that puts them in that world”—perhaps a trauma that they themselves are enduring—in addition to the calls themselves that first responders go on day-in and day-out.
“Very often, the first responders we see for therapy have trauma from their childhood, or their personal life, and the call may merely break the camel’s back in terms of the trauma symptoms,” Rummily said.
Trauma can develop as a result of what Rumilly called a “cumulative stress response” or a buildup of those calls, or “it can be an individual call where there are fatalities or suicides or child death,” she said.
“Those calls are particularly difficult for first responders,” Rumilly saId. “And so very often in my office or for other members of the team, we will see a first responder in acute stress.”
Rumilly herself joined the Trauma Response Team in 2013, shortly after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, and was working as a crisis therapist three days later.
Understandably and rightly, we focus following a traumatic incident, such as a violent or untimely death, on the family or closest loved ones of the deceased. Yet almost immediately, and during the critically important minutes after a 9-1-1 call, there are first responders on scene, witnessing and offering assistance to people in distress, sometimes people who are already beyond help.
It’s an unimaginable job to most of us, and yet another example of how first responders risk so much more than the average person, just by way of doing those jobs.
What first responders are exposed to, and the toll it takes on them, is largely unknown by the civilian communities they serve.
As Rumilly noted, “people out in the community don’t really have an awareness of that.”
“So we’re trying to break the stigma,” she said. “We’re trying to raise awareness and really educate the public on how dire this is. And sadly, the suicide rates among police, fire, EMS and dispatch are very high.”
In running training sessions with first responders, Trauma Response Team members talk about PTSD and therapy, Rumilly told us.
“We want them to know what can happen to them as they’re going to work each day and that there is help and that it can be resolved for them,” she said.
When there’s a difficult call that’s impacted multiple or even dozens of first responders, the Team will debrief the situation and “very often, I would say, the majority of people benefit from those debriefings and may not ever need to sit in front of a therapist,” according to Rumilly.
In other cases, those symptoms may persist or arise later as a result of the incident, she said. In such cases, the Team acts as a referral service.
“So if a first responder calls one of our clinical directors and says, ‘I’m really struggling,’ they’re going to match that person with a team member,” Rumilly said. “And we all have our own private practices and we’re able to take on those referrals, which is really, really wonderful. And we also have other therapists in the state that we can refer to if need be.”
The Trauma Response Team currently counts about 30 therapists, mostly in Fairfield County. They’re 100% volunteer and the organization relies on donations for its funding (donate here).
Next week’s inaugural fundraiser at Waveny House is a big deal. There, attendees will have the chance to mingle and chat with Rumilly and other first responders, and to hear from keynote speaker Todd Blyleven. Son of MLB Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven, Todd Blyleven will share his story as a civilian who risked his life to save others during the 2017 Las Vegas shooting that killed 60 people, the struggles he faced afterwards and his journey to healing with the help of EMDR therapy.
As Rumilly explained during our podcast this summer, EMDR stands for “eye movement, desensitization and reprocessing.”
“It’s a very long, difficult name, but in short, it allows us as the trauma therapist to have this modality that ultimately helps the brain heal itself,” she said.
Rumilly went on to explain:
“EMDR mainly works on the premise of REM sleep. When we go into REM sleep at night, our brain processes the information from the day and our eyes dart back and forth in our head. And it’s through that processing that our brain decides what it needs for long term, short term, and what can be put in the trash. And so what I love, what my colleagues love about EMDR, is that we can take either one specific traumatic event or we can help people with the accumulation of or multiple events—or even ‘complex trauma,’ which is childhood trauma and then adult trauma—and we, with the client, decide how this trauma is living and breathing with them at the current time. Trauma really lives in the brain and the body. So, we will decide with the client what their negative belief about themselves is with this trauma, which is usually how it presents itself. And through eye movement, we’re doing bilateral stimulation on both sides of the brain and we help the brain process the trauma so that it can move forward and store it appropriately and the symptoms will either completely subside or significantly decrease.”
The need for the Trauma Response Team’s services is only increasing. Suicide rates among first responders rise year-over-year and, as Rumilly noted, are highest among police.
“When we look at those statistics in our world, that is why we’re so passionate about our work,” Rumilly said of herself and the other Trauma Response Team members. “It is not OK. No one should have to take their life because of the traumas they have faced either at work or outside of work, and we want every first responder and every civilian to be aware of the dangers and that we are here to help and we’re just so passionate about what we do. We’re hoping to raise more funds so that we can expand the team and help more first responders.”
New Canaan is a community that values its police, firefighters and EMTs. Let’s take care of those who dutifully care for us, and show our support for these everyday heroes and get behind next week’s fundraiser at Waveny.