by Jennifer Costa
Sue Critz often meets people on their darkest days. Their belongings may have just been swept away by a flood or gobbled up by a home fire. They may have even lost a family member to the disaster.
“I have a background in hospice care which probably helps,” says Critz, a retired registered nurse from New Hampshire.
“When I retired, I was looking for a volunteer job that took advantage of my professional career and the American Red Cross disaster cycle services fit that bill.”
Critz’s dual roles on the Red Cross Disaster Action Team as a Disaster Services Manager and Recovery Specialist are a natural fit for her decades of clinical experience and passion for community nursing. Over the last six years, she has deployed several times, traveling to large-scale disasters in North Carolina, Texas and St. Croix. Critz is the boots on the ground person reviewing potential shelter sites and managing shelter clinics.
But it’s the work back home that she says is most rewarding. Last year, the Red Cross helped 595 people in the Granite State after 128 home fires. The experience can be overwhelming.
“They’ll always say to me, ‘I’ve never been through this before.’ And for them, it’s kind of a double whammy – losing a house and a loved one,” says Critz.
She’s part of a specialized group that helps families navigate the aftermath of a tragedy. They’re called the Integrated Care Condolence Team. It’s a combination of coordinated services – from casework and recovery planning to disaster spiritual care, mental health and health services – offered simultaneously to minimize intrusion and maximize care, comfort and support.
“What we are able to do is provide some guidance going forward,” says Critz, “How do you put one foot in front of another – whether it’s because of the fatality or because of the loss of the home.”
The caseworker will help families with practical issues like where they will live, how to retrieve or salvage their belongings and who to inform about the fire. Disaster mental health professionals then guide families through grief counseling. And health service members, like Critz, help families replenish medications or replace medical equipment that was lost during the disaster.
“We work with these families for four to six weeks,” says Critz, “and one of the things that we are able to do is see that rebuilding because of the support we provided.”
Critz has one final role. She’s the liaison to the state medical examiner’s offices throughout Northern New England. When a fatality occurs in Vermont, New Hampshire or Maine, she’s tasked with verifying the death, providing financial assistance and gathering data that may help prevent future fires.
“Since 2005, part of our mission is to collect fire fatality information for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” explains Critz, “It’s information that helps the CDC understand and analyze why fire deaths occur. Did they have smoke detectors in their home? Did the smoke detectors work?”
Home fires claim seven lives across this country every day. Having a working smoke alarm cuts your risk of dying in half. Install alarms on every floor and test them monthly.
For Critz, this work is about connecting with people – and giving back to those in her community when they need it most.
“I want to read you a recent note that I got from one of my families and what she said to me is, ‘I want to thank you for your help and encouragement – an ear to listen. It’s people like you who make this world a bit nicer. Keep doing what you are doing because you are amazing.’ And I only read that because the most important thing in all of that was, we were an ear to listen,” says Critz, “So sometimes we are not doing the work of recovery, but we are there to listen and I think that’s really important.”