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When People Die Unexpectedly, This Woman Comforts the Survivors

Laura Krum volunteers for Trauma Intervention Program of Portland/Vancouver Inc.

When Laura Krum's phone rings, it often means somebody's dead.

For seven years, Krum has been a volunteer for Trauma Intervention Program of Portland/Vancouver Inc.

About 150 times a month, police or firefighters arriving on the scene of an emergency tell the 911 dispatch center to send a tip volunteer like Krum. She and her colleagues give emotional first aid to the survivors of fatal events: loved ones, co-workers, children and even bystanders who witnessed a death or traumatic incident.

Krum, 59, a former juvenile court counselor, is one of 180 TIP volunteers dispatched to 911 calls in Multnomah, Clackamas and Clark counties.

This summer has already seen its share of deadly accidents: an 18-year-old man drowned in the Clackamas River in late June, and in July a car crashed into a North Portland house, killing a 58-year-old woman in the car.

Last summer, TIP responded to 500 calls. Most of the calls involved deaths from natural causes, but 11 calls included drowning, and 10 others involved fire.

Volunteers have 20 minutes to get to their designated location, which could be a school, a hospital, the couch in a deceased person's apartment. Volunteers get 50 hours of training before ever being sent to the scene of a traumatic incident.

Krum brings with her a bag containing packets of tissue, bottled water, and resource guides that include the telephone numbers for bereavement and mental health hotlines. A checklist of what to do after a death is also inside the bag, next to crayons for children.

WW talked with Krum about what it's like to provide emotional first aid to the people of Portland and Vancouver.

WW: What is the most memorable call you've been on?

Laura Krum: I don't know if I can answer that question. I've been on some really powerful calls and some really profoundly difficult situations. I don't think I can answer that question without revealing details, and still completely protect the privacy of my clients.

Well, more generally, what are some of your toughest calls?

Calls involving children are always extremely tough. Suicides are extremely tough. Every death is difficult for somebody in some way, and so it doesn't feel right to sort of say this is tougher than others, but I think as a volunteer, there is a continuum. Of course, it's very different to be assisting a family who has just experienced a death of a loved one who's 102, who's lived long and had a long, full life. Very different than, say, assisting a family who's suddenly experiencing the death of a child or the suicide of a love one. An accident that's a horrible, terrible accident.

How do you calm people down?

It's a matter of being a good observer, a very good listener, and meeting those people where they are. Slowing down. I keep things very slow and simple, and I convey that we've got time. We might put an arm around a shoulder; if a client indicates willingness for a hug, we're available for that. What we don't do is pat people on the back—we're very conscious of how we use touch.

What happens when kids are a part of the emergency?

Most children work out their feelings through play, so we are equipped with simple distractions. I carry pipe cleaners and crayons, things like that would just allow me to meet the child where he or she is.

What are you not supposed to do?

In TIP, we try to avoid what we call second injuries. Which could mean a visit from a nosy neighbor that [my client] is not ready for, or an approach from a media person when they're just in no condition to have a conversation like that. I might redirect a distraught mother from walking out into the middle of the street or doing something very absent-minded at a time when she's not thinking clearly.

What's the longest time you spent on a call?

Typically, our calls last about two to three hours that we spend with clients, but in the case of a drowning, we spend in excess of 15 hours on a scene. We sent a team of volunteers that spent seven days to volunteer following the Umpqua Community College shooting.

What's something that stands out to you during calls?

I have the privilege of entering an individual's life at an incredibly emotional, sensitive, private time. I have the privilege of staying and offering support during a really private time. And in the course of doing that, I find myself providing support to all manner of my fellow humans, regardless of our differences in age or ethnicity or belief system. We can help anyone at any time, and we do.