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‘Group of Angels’ Provide Emotional First Aid to Mainers

Patty Wight
Carmen Charlton (left) and Trisha Allenwood

In an emergency situation, first responders and doctors are typically the ones to provide immediate, life-saving help. But for survivors and witnesses of an accident or other crisis there can also be emotional trauma. And for 12 years, volunteers in Cumberland County have been stepping in to provide emotional first aid to family members and others who share the ordeal.

Just minutes after Carmen Charlton walked through the door of her Gorham home on March 22, her husband collapsed in their kitchen.

“I had had a couple of appointments in the afternoon, and I got home at 4:27, and Bill went down at 4:33. So I think that he waited for me to get home,” she says.

Charlton called 911. As first responders rushed Bill to the hospital, she got in her car, picked up her adult son Brian, and followed.

“When my son and I got there it was a little different from when I had gone into the ER with Bill or Brian before,” she says. “They took us to this small room, and only we were there.”

Charlton’s husband had collapsed 10 months earlier, but physicians were able to revive him. This time she didn’t grasp how critical her husband’s situation was. He had a massive heart attack.

“Then I heard somebody mention something about TIP,” she says.

The Trauma Intervention Program, or TIP, is a group of volunteers who provide emotional first aid to survivors of traumatic events.

When a crisis happens, first responders, police, and hospitals call TIP, and volunteers like Trisha Allenwood go wherever they’re needed: to the side of a road after a car accident, to a home or, as in Charlton’s case, to the emergency department.

“I walked in, I was introduced by a nurse,” Allenwood says.

“I was thinking, I’m not really sure why I need this. Because I’m thinking, again, everything will be fine. And my son said to me, because Trisha had gone outside the room for a couple minutes, ‘If all she’s going to do is yack yack yack, I’m going to ask her to leave, because I’m not in mood for this. I just need be alone with my thoughts,’” Charlton says.

“Carmen was in shock for a lot of the time I was with her. And Brian was sitting a lot of times with his head down,” Allenwood says.

“We call them forgotten victims.” says Leslie Skillin, program manager for TIP, which is a part of Maine Behavioral Healthcare. TIP originally started 30 years ago in California by a psychologist who trained volunteers to fill a gap in emergency care.

“Having someone just be there, and their only purpose would be to emotionally support survivors in immediate aftermath to prevent second injuries as we call them. So folks can go through their grieving process in a way that they need to, without feeling injured by the system,” Skillin says.

In Maine, the TIP program only operates in Cumberland County. Its 23 volunteers complete 50 hours of training and commit to three 12-hour shifts every month to ensure someone is available around the clock.

Trisha Allenwood has volunteered for four years. Initially, she says she had second thoughts.

“One of my first calls was very upsetting and very difficult, and I can remember sitting in Maine Med thinking to myself, ‘When this call is done, I’m quitting. I can’t do this. This is hard,’” she says. “But when I got going through that call, and the people were involved, I thought, where would they be if we hadn’t come in? That would have been horrible for them. They would have been alone, they would have been confused. So I thought, I get it now. That’s why I’ve stuck with it. I know we can help the people that we’re called to be with.”

At the hospital with Carmen and Brian Charlton, Allenwood listened as they shared stories about their husband and father. She took notes when doctors gave updates. She held Charlton’s hand when it became clear that her husband wasn’t going to make it.

“This was particularly difficult in the sense that we had an older son, and he had cancer, and we had to tell them to take him off life support,” Charlton says. “So this was the second time in one lifetime that I had to do this.”

As Charlton grappled with the loss of her husband, she was concerned about her surviving son, Brian. He had a heart attack the year before, and she worried about what the shock of his father’s death would do to him. But she was so beside herself, she couldn’t focus on taking care of him.

Allenwood, she says, stepped in where she couldn’t.

“The one thing I remember that helped me, and Brian even mentioned this, was not so much the words, but it was the warm hand on a hand, or the slight hug, or when she passed us coffee, she touched our fingers, so that there was an emotional connection and we knew that she was in this with us,” Charlton says.

Allenwood stayed with them until they were ready to go home. She gave them numbers to call if they needed support in the coming days and weeks. Then, they said their goodbyes.

Charlton didn’t have anyone like this when her son passed away 21 years ago. And the pain of that experience lingers with her to this day.

“I walked away from there with so many questions unanswered,” she says. “That’s 21 years ago, and I still don’t really understand.”

Though the death of her husband is still raw, Charlton says because of Allenwood and the TIP program, she feels more at peace about what happened that day.

“Unless you really need them, you really don’t know about them, but they’re a group of angels out there that make all the difference for people like me and my son.”