That awful day in Tucson when Daniel Hernandez heard shots and ran towards the shooting, rather than, as survival instincts would impel, away from it, he was a hero despite his protestations to the contrary. When he took Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' hand and asked her to squeeze his if she could hear him, he was applying a form of Verbal First Aid. He was using words and gestures in a way that could help change the chemicals rushing through her frightened, injured body from those of fear that can increase the bleeding to those of calm to help her body connect with its own potential for healing.
"She was obviously in a lot of pain," he said in an interview with CNN, "so I just let her know to squeeze my hand as hard as she wanted to." When we become a steadfast lifeline, whether with our words ("The worst is over," "I'm right here," "Let me help") or body language, we allow the body and spirit of the injured person to begin to move from harm to repair, from fear to calm.
Hernandez said that when the emergency personnel arrived on the scene and he was no longer trying to deal with the congresswoman's wounds himself, "My main concern was that she knew that someone was there with her no matter what ... holding her hand." The impact of this kind of support is invaluable. We can staunch the bleeding with aprons from the meat department, but we help reduce pain, provide the body with an atmosphere in which to begin heal itself, and we even can change the way an incident is remembered when we say the words that comfort and provide a sense of safety. It has been shown that even unconscious people hear and are affected by our words at such times.
Whenever we are at the scene of an emergency, if we can take a breath, know we are there for a reason, and emotionally and physically hold the hand of those who are hurt and frightened, we shift the experience for them in untold ways. Even with everyday injuries, if we can avoid the instinct to panic and "awfulize" and instead use words not only of comfort, but which provide a direction of recovery, helping the victim know that they can turn their fears over to someone who is there for them, we may change the dynamic from panic to hope. If we help them imagine and visualize healing, we may change the chemicals rushing through the body from sympathetic nervous system fight-or-flight chemicals to parasympathetic nervous system chemicals that allow rest, nurturance and healing to occur. We may even help turn the memory of a scare into one of rescue and perhaps resilience.
In the protocol of Verbal First Aid, there are many techniques and methods including guided imagery, using role models, remembered strengths and more. And the use of the one that is the solace of presence, which Daniel Hernandez offered Gabrielle Giffords, even by itself, is a gift beyond measure... and it's something we all have to give.
Judith Simon Prager has co-authored and written books on Verbal First Aid™ for first responders, parents and kids: "Verbal First Aid: Help Your Kids Heal from Fear and Pain -- And Come Out Strong," "The Worst Is Over: What to Say When Every Moment Counts," and "Owie-Cadabra's Verbal First Aid for Kids: A Somewhat Magical Way to Help Heal Yourself and Your Friends."