After returning from a trip to Japan in late April, Dr. Peter Tuerk received an email with the simple subject "it worked."
It was from the mother of a boy with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The boy was one of many victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that Tuerk and his colleague, Dr. Matthew Yoder -- both psychologists at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center and assistant professors at the
Medical University of South Carolina -- helped to combat the anxiety disorder.
After the earthquake, the boy had stopped wanting to play with his friends and go outside. Any time there was a small tremor, which Tuerk said occurred 15 to 20 times during their week-long stay, the boy would run to the family safety room where there was no furniture so nothing could fall.
"During the small tremors it was very easy to spot the people around us who were very anxious and those who were able to distinguish between 'this is a potentially dangerous earthquake' and 'oh, this is just a small tremor,' " said Tuerk, who specializes in treating combat-related PTSD. "He was treating every small tremor as if it were an earthquake."
Tuerk helped created a dialogue between the mother and child, and taught her specific exercises to confront and relieve his anxieties, such as shaking him in his bed or chair. Eventually, the mother was able to convince her son to come out to his favorite restaurant, McDonald's, and do origami. She said if he stayed he could have dessert, and he ate so many desserts he got a stomachache.
The next time they felt the ground rumble, her son turned to her and said, "Don't worry Mommy, we don't have to go to the room, it's just another tremor."
Tuerk and Yoder didn't expect to be directly involved like that, although they saw the opportunity and made time for it. Instead, the two focused on teaching students and faculty members at Tokiwa, a university an hour north of Tokyo whose International Victimology Institute had invited them to Japan for their PTSD expertise. They wanted to know how to go into affected areas and determine who needed psychological help.
"After a disaster there's a lot of desire to help from the outside," said Yoder, who focuses on mental health interventions after disasters and helped out after Hurricane Katrina and the Virginia Tech shootings. "And what's interesting about Japan is it's a very developed country so they have a lot of their own resources, and we didn't want to go and get in the way."
Tuerk and Yoder also aided students and faculty members in developing a plan to help vulnerable populations at evacuation centers, such as schools and nursing homes. After their three-day training session, the pair went to Tokyo to talk with researchers doing similar therapies to theirs. One such therapy in which Yoder specializes is telemedicine, or providing therapy over video-conferencing equipment.
"Interestingly, with the radiation disaster, there was a big area where no one was going," Yoder said. "So to be able to use telemedicine therapy, for a physician to be outside of the evacuation zone to be treating people inside the evacuation zone, was a unique application of this therapy."