Where do you feel most at home?

As a volunteer clinician with BC Disaster Psychosocial (DPS) Services, I was honoured to serve both civilians and first responders in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada – a city devastated by fire . . . here are some of my reflections on my week in Fort Mac . . .

Journal Entry – July 2016 – Ucluelet, BC

There’s no place like home!

I will never forget Dorothy, in the Wizard of Oz, who declared those powerful words as she gazed into the eyes of her loving family and friends.

And to think that her family home had just been destroyed in a violent storm!

Deep in Dorothy’s heart, she knew she had truly come home.

In the same way, the people of Fort McMurray so get that.  Though several residents returned to discover only ashes where their houses once stood and others do not know if they will even be permitted to return to their dwelling places, one truth remains  . . .

Home is the people you love and who love you; home is the relationship you cherish with your family, friends, neighbours and co-workers.

This is the mindset I encountered again and again with the people of Fort McMurray.

As I sit here, cozy in my flannel pyjamas in the comfort of my warm and safe abode here in Ucluelet, BC, I reflect on several precious conversations I was privileged to share with the people of Fort Mac.

John*, a former oil sands employee and long time resident of Fort Mac, confided how terrified he was as he drove out of town through a wall of fire to pick up his wife from work.

“What did you take with you, John?” I asked.

John’s face flushed with emotion as he spoke, “All we took was our I.D. and a few files.  And the dog. There was no time for anything else.”

“My house is still standing,” he continued.  “I’m one of the lucky ones. My two grown sons are okay too.  I thank God.  We’re all okay.”

Mark*, is a city employee, whose job is to make sure Fort Mac homes are environmentally safe to return to.  I happened to find him alone at his desk.  I asked how he himself is doing.  He confided that he had been working for several days non stop. He paused a moment and quietly spoke. . .

“I was renting an apartment before the fire hit. When I returned home to Fort Mac, I was forbidden to enter my front door.  It’s not safe.  Like many people I am helping, I too am now homeless.”

Choking back tears, he slowly continued, “With the help of the Red Cross, I am living in a hotel room right now.  All my food is in my car.  I have no fridge. I understand what the people of Fort Mac are going through; I know what it feels to be displaced. I believe what I am going through is helping me understand what they are going through.”

I agreed with Mark; his empathy and personal experience will help him be a more compassionate person to those he serves.

An hour passed quickly; Mark quietly thanked me for my time.

Following a 1 and 1/2 hour debrief session I co-facilitated with a DPS colleague at the newly opened city hospital, one nurse soberly shared, “One of our staff members was watching it happen right outside the hospital window before her eyes; her neighbourhood was in flames.  She never left her patients. She was able to call her husband at work and ask him to call their neighbour to please get their dog out of the burning house.  The neighbour did just that.  The dog was rescued before they lost their house to the fire.”

The medical staff spoke of a deep gratitude to be alive and together again as a team.  They shared how thankful they were to have been able to return home.

These conversations and others too numerous to mention here are what made my experience in Fort McMurray both memorable and humbling.

I received far more from these courageous people than I could ever have hoped to give.  Yes, I am the richer for it.

And I agree with Dorothy and the courageous people of Fort Mac, “There’s no place like home!”

Are you feeling lost in your life journey? My hope is that, like Dorothy, you too will find “your way back home” to yourself.

* Names of individuals I spoke with have been changed to protect their identity.