Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

PARTY of Pain

The first thing you hear is the screaming. Screams of anger, screams of fear, and screams of pain. Pain, pain, pain. It's the kind of screaming that cuts right into your core, the kind that makes you feel your blood pressure rise and tightness start in your head. It's the kind of screaming I have been incredibly fortunate to never actually witness, except in a mock collision as I experienced today when I attended the morning session of the PARTY Program.

PARTY, or Prevent Alcohol and Risk-related Youth Trauma, is a one day injury prevention and awareness program intended for Grade Nine students. Yesterday I discovered an invitation to today's event had landed in my email inbox, and I cleared my calendar to go - but I did it with a bit of a heavy heart because even though I knew I had to attend I also knew that it would likely trigger some of the emotions I have been experiencing in the past few days. I knew that this program occurring so soon after the horrific accident on Highway 63 Friday and all that has happened since would likely stir up many of those feelings again for me, but I also knew I had to attend.

The Wood Buffalo RCMP teamed up with several partners to present PARTY today. Each group plays a role in our community, from first responders to victim services to those who work with the offenders who cause these accidents. Each have a very strong stake in making these kinds of accidents stop. And each is dead serious about the impacts these accidents have on everyone, from the victims to the families to the first responders to the community. Listening to them speak about the impacts was powerful enough - but that isn't where the day started. The day started in the parking lot, with a mock collision, and screaming.

Two cars, one t-boning the other. Frantic teenaged "victims" with injuries screaming with fear and pain and anger. Help us, the voices cried. Please, they begged. Oh god, they screamed, oh god. And every single scream, even though acted and likely rehearsed, was chilling. The watching Grade Nine students stood silently, watching, waiting. Watching a tragedy unfold, watching as kids their age suddenly saw their lives changed forever. And I watched them both, the actors in the mock collision and the young audience, watched them as they waited for the first responders to arrive.

Up the emergency vehicles came, lights flashing. Out the first responders poured, quickly assessing the victims in both cars. A yellow tarp, quickly spread over the obviously deceased individual in one car who had been projected through the front window. A blanket for the young woman who walked away from the accident, perhaps only lightly physically injured but scarred forever emotionally. Another young victim, removed from the car and laid on the ground, quickly covered with a yellow tarp. And then to work on a survivor, trapped in a car, screaming in pain and fear. Pain, pain, pain.

Quickly the fire fighters went to work, cutting away the roof of the car to extricate her. Quickly the EMTs place an IV and assess her condition. Quickly, quickly, quickly, so fast I could not follow every action and move. And then the arrival of a father, distraught, screaming, shouting out that this couldn't be happening, not his daughter, not his baby. Pain, pain, pain.

She is quickly removed and taken to a waiting ambulance for transport to hospital. And then it is over, the accident scene. Except it will never be over, two young bodies covered in yellow tarps, two families destroyed, hundreds more friends and family members in tears, and a community devastated yet again by the loss of life in an unnecessary, preventable away. The ambulance will drive away. The bodies will be removed. The police investigation will finish and they will leave. The cars will be put on flatbeds and disappear. Rain will come and wash away the shattered glass and the debris. But it can't wash away the pain. Nothing will ever make the pain go away.

I stood there a bit stunned as it unfolded before me, going places in my head that I should avoid. I looked at the young audience and saw several in tears. While it was a mock collision I knew they were going the same places in their heads, places that saw their friends dead or dying - or themselves.

We walked inside then, and I collected myself while we listened to some speakers. A young RCMP officer spoke about doing next of kin notifications, and how it never gets easier to walk up to someone's door, ring the bell, and then devastate their lives with the news that their loved one is gone. A Victims Services worker talked about the families in pain, how Victims Services stays when the officers leave, and how they must help families pick up shattered pieces of their lives. Two young women from corrections speak about the impact on those who cause such accidents, the charges they face and how that changes their lives. And then an EMT speaks about the impact of one accident on a local woman, and how it changed her life. He was the EMT who responded to the accident, one so horrific and a car so mangled they thought it impossible anyone could possibly survive, and yet she did, but carrying so many physical and emotional scars. And with every speaker I saw it again. An RCMP officer close to tears, a Victims Services worker, corrections workers, an EMT - pain, pain, pain.

While they were speaking you could hear a pin drop in the room. An entire group of Grade Nine students, normally boisterous and rowdy, silent. Heads bowed down. Faces looking a bit flushed, and some close to tears. You see they felt the pain, too.

The students day went on after I left. They were going to visit the hospital, to see a trauma presentation and view the morgue - and then to have a session to help them deal with all they had seen and felt that day, to help them to cope with the inevitable flood of emotions. I suspect I could have asked to go to the hospital, too, but I didn't. Because I knew I simply couldn't cope with it, couldn't visit the emergency room and the morgue without experiencing a very public emotional breakdown. I knew I had reached my limit for the day.

I got in my car and began to drive home, a massive headache forming behind my eyes. I knew why it was there. It was there because I had been holding in my tears, refusing to cry yet again after a weekend when it seemed I couldn't shed any more tears. I headed home, my head pounding, in search of a Tylenol and maybe to lie down, to escape the pain. And when I got home I cried instead. Pain, pain, pain.

There might be those who think holding PARTY today was inappropriate given the accident late last week. Instead I think it was the perfect timing, that accident fresh in the hearts and heads of everyone in attendance. While I suspect PARTY is always deeply impacting I also suspect today was even more so as we have collectively as a community experienced loss and grief and pain on an incredible scale in the past few days. I would like to thank all those who organized PARTY, those who invited me to attend, the actors, and, most especially, the students who I saw there today. Those students hold their lives, and the lives of those around them, in their hands every time they get behind the steering wheel of a car.   I hope today they learned what a responsibility they carry, and I hope they make the kinds of decisions that ensure the safety of themselves and others. I thank them in advance for doing this, because their decisions will impact not only their future but the future of every one of us in this community.


  1. Wow! Thanks for sharing. We, we being P.A.R.T.Y. HQ in Toronto often have our Site Coordinators from around the country and worldwide wonder about the value staging a P.A.R.T.Y. day so soon after a tragedy in the community. Your thoughts help!

  2. No matter what happens around us, we should be careful and think before we do.