In preparing for the next CERT Graduation, Gary Freeman, John Grahn and I thought this was going to be just another training exercise. That was before we met Gil and Shirl Garcia.
Gil and Shirl attended a CERT Class being taught by Gary and myself at the City of Denver’s Human Resources Building at 1200 Federal, Denver Colorado. Both Gil and Shirl were very attentive during the instruction, asked a lot of questions and participated in mini-exercises we sprinkled throughout the course.
But then, that is what we expect out of all students in our class.
What made Gil and Shirl stand out from the rest of the class? Shirl is a survivor of Wilson’s Disease. Wilson’s Disease is an inherited form of copper poisoning.
Copper in the blood exists in two forms: bound to ceruloplasmin (85–95%) and the rest “free” loosely bound to albumin and small molecules. Free copper causes toxicity as it generates reactive oxygen species such as superoxide, hydrogen peroxide, the hydroxyl radical. These damage proteins, lipids and DNA.
From my understanding about Wilson’s Disease, it causes the body to retain copper, since it is not excreted by the liver into the bile. This disease, if untreated, can lead to brain and liver damage.
Shirl survived the initial attack (Wilson’s Disease does not always show up at birth and can be dormant for years), but it damaged her ability to talk, her walking gait is unsteady and her hand writing is as challenging to decipher as her verbal skills (although given time, you can start to understand her). These challenges did not stop her from trying to communicate. Shirl comes armed with a hand pad so she can write out her messages, she brings a lap top for more involved dialog and then there is her husband Gil, who is Shirl’s translator.
During lunch one day, after we had covered module 6 (Incident Command System), Shirl wanted to know if I thought she had what it takes to be an Incident Commander (the person responsible for all aspects of an emergency response).
I told her that I thought her biggest challenge would be to communicate her orders to the team. Gil, her husband, said he did not think that would be a problem, as she has been bossing him around for years. After Gil survived Shirl’s shoulder punch, I told Shirl that I have seen those who seem to have no disability have more trouble communicating with the incident team. So if she felt up to the challenge, go for it or step up to one of the other positions in the basic CERT ICS: Operations Chief (responsible for the management of all operations of the incident), Logistics Chief (responsible for ordering additional personnel and equipment resources as needed), Planning Chief (collects, evaluates, processes and disseminates information for use at the incident) or the Administration Chief (incident documentation – notes and receipts). I could tell the wheels were turning in her head.
On July 30, close to 80 brave CERT students joined Shirl and Gil and gathered at our testing site. I would like to thank Pat O’Neill for registering the participants and Rose Critchfield for hiding the survivors (once John worked his moulage magic).
As John was preparing the survivors with their various injuries, both Gary and I were using this time to go over, very quickly, the highlights of the CERT curriculum. This has been a nice review time for everyone.
Then Rose gave me the high sign and it was time to have the students “put up or shut up”.
Once the Incident Commander was selected and he was starting to select his General Staff (Operations, Planning, Administration and Logistics), he received a resounding tap on the arm. It was Shirl, pointing the finger to her and in a clear voice: “Logistics”.
The IC looked over at me and Shirl tapped his arm, pointing to her portable note pad that had these words written: “If I can’t do the job, fire me.” He looked at her and said, “Deal”.
Shirl was one of the best Logistics Chiefs that I have had the pleasure of observing. She anticipated the needs of the team, offered alternatives when the plan was not working very well (it never does in our exercises). The entire group of CERT students walked away with a new perspective on disabilities, thanks to Shril (one of them being – the disabled do not like being called “special”). And she did this with out her Chief Translator, Gil, who was part of a search, rescue and triage team.
A few weeks later I ran into Shirl at the State of Colorado Functional and Access Needs Tabletop and Workshop held in Denver. She shared with the workshop her perspective that just because she has a disability, does not mean that she can’t come up with a plan to help herself and her family in case of a disaster. Thanks to the CERT class she had taken in Denver (Shirl and Gil live in southern Weld County) she was given a tremendous degree of freedom and control for her family and herself.
I did walk away that day thinking that Shirl and Gil were special. Not because of Shirl’s disability or because Gil has been her chief cheerleader, but because they stepped up into the realm of volunteer emergency preparedness and are willing to share their knowledge and enthusiasm.
So the next time you see a person in a wheel chair or a walker or holding a speech device, consider that what’s visible on the surface can be very different from what’s hidden underneath.