Recovering from disaster - it's not over just because the cameras have gone


“We have good days and bad days. We are now having more good days than we were, but the bad days are still fairly bad.

"We often have chats at 1 am about where is life leading us, and what we are going to do.”


When I interviewed Charlton GP Dr Stephen Webb five weeks after his house and business premises were inundated in Victoria's January floods, it was clear that although the water had long receded, the impact would be felt for years to come.

For much of the first quarter of 2011, the media ran story after story about natural disasters – Victoria’s and Queensland’s floods, Cyclone Yasi, the Christchurch quake and, most recently, Japan’s quake and tsunami and nuclear disaster.

But as the imminent danger passed and the clean-up after each disaster began, the media reports thinned out and the news topics of the day returned to celebrity gossip, politics and interest rates.

But life hasn't returned to normal for the victims of these events - and it won't for weeks, months or years to come.

Take another Victorian GP, Dr Lachlan Fraser, whose house and practice were destroyed in the Black Saturday fires in 2009.

I spoke to him only a few weeks ago as well and he is still waiting for his new surgery to be built. He has come a long way in two years – finding new love, returning to work, making future career plans – but he admits he is still not over it.

“When you have been in the heat of disaster, and you are in danger of losing your life, I don’t think you ever get over that.”

Dr Stephen Webb suspects he, too, has a very long road ahead of him, especially as he and many of his neighbours learned this week that their insurers will not cover them for what they refer to as 'riverine flood'.

As the townsfolk of Charlton met to consider their options last night, Dr Webb admitted he was preparing himself for the possibility of joining a class action.

He told me his story for an article commissioned by Medical Observer earlier this month. Here is an extract from that interview.

My practice was co-located with the hospital and aged care facility in Charlton. We had a very nice refurbished building – and then it went 50cm to 60cm under water.

Our house was flooded too.

We were in Melbourne at the time. We went out on Saturday night to celebrate my 50th birthday, knowing our house was nine inches under water… we just pretended it wasn’t happening.

Friends went to our house to lift things off the floor, but they couldn’t do much as the light fell and the water rose, so after 30 minutes they left.

We lost metres of bookshelves, filing cabinet drawers, ancestral photos, family tree information, chests with photos from the Middle East, university days, celluloid negatives, antique Asian textiles.

It is quicker to say what we have left rather than what was destroyed.

We got back here Monday afternoon to see the devastation and, thereafter, we had friends who came up and tore our house apart, basically.

We are now, weeks down the track, painstakingly trying to reassemble the house after it was brutally disassembled. We are living in a building site with some damaged furniture.

There are no floorcoverings, the walls are cracked and the paint is peeling, the skirting is half gone, the floors are all bare floorboards or marine chipboard, and we have mould growing. We have this coloured, mouldy fungal farm. Not the kind of pets I want.

It impacts on your emotional stability.

The reality is that if you take valued things away from somebody, whether they are possessions or people or functionality, you grieve. Firstly there is denial; you can’t absorb it. Then comes the anger phase.

It all impacts on your emotional stability. You get sleep disturbance, you lose your appetite, you get short-tempered and it just mucks around with your head a bit.

My own GP recommended moving my nine-year-old daughter into our bedroom so she can actually go to sleep. At the moment, she habitually awakes through the night, or doesn’t even get to sleep until midnight.

Whether that is entirely flood-related and stress-derived at the consequence of seeing the house dismantled around you and losing your favourite toys, I don’t know.

We’re averaging four or five hours sleep a night. We are all short-tempered and cranky and that doesn’t improve the mood in the house.

We don't feel like socialising on a bad day.

We don’t feel like going out or talking to anyone on a bad day. We just don’t feel ready for coping with things. I am sure there are lots of people in the same boat as us and they are limping along the same way.

I have been staying away from work because I didn’t think I would be a lot of use to anybody as a GP listening to patients' problems. I am wrapped up in trying to solve my own problems, which I would hope sounds reasonable.

The perception that doctors are immune from the psychological impact of events like this is a terrible misconception and I think we need to recognise ourselves that we are only human and are therefore subject to human frailties.

But portacabins are being arranged as a temporary general practice location, and we are likely to be in them for three years. Do I want to be? No. Am I resigned to the fact that we probably will be? Yes.

The positive side is that I would like to think it will make me a much more empathic doctor, because the truth is until we have been through something like this we don’t know, we just don’t.

There is no doubt that as a consequence of my own experience it will improve my ability as a doctor when I return to work because instead of just sympathising with people, I will be able to truly empathise with them.

That has got to be a good thing at some point in my professional career.


For more information about Pamela Wilson or WriteSmart, log on to http://www.writesmart.com.au/


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Finding case studies for your articles

Photo: © Vladimir Mucibabic Dreamstime.com

“How do you find case studies for your stories?”

If I had a Mars Bar every time I heard that question, my chin rolls would be bigger than Homer's.

The best way to answer this question is to perhaps walk you through a yarn I was working on this week.

It was a feature article on doctors whose practices had all but been destroyed by the recent floods, and Cyclone Yasi, in Queensland and Victoria.

Not only did I have to find individual doctors who had been affected, I had to get expert advice on what all doctors could do in the future to prepare their businesses in the event of a major catastrophe.

Now, here’s the thing, I am based in Sydney - at least 1000 clicks from each of the doctors I wanted to track down.

So, how did I go about finding a bunch of doctors whose businesses, and possibly their homes, had been destroyed and entice them to spend precious time chatting to me about their heartache while the sludge slowly receded around their ankles?

Good planning!

It’s all it takes.

Step 1:

Firstly, I worked out how many doctors I would need to interview to get a balanced and broad viewpoint for the article.

I figured with floods in Victoria and Queensland, and Cyclone Yasi menacing Northern Queensland, I would need three docs – one from each area – to give a recount of their experiences.

But I also felt it would be worthwhile speaking to a doctor who had previously been through a catastrophic event to ask how they had got through it and – more importantly – how they got back on their feet.

I tinkered around on the internet and flicked through the week’s editions of the metropolitan newspapers to find those towns and suburbs hardest hit.

Like a dart to a board, I zeroed in on these regions and then clicked onto the Yellow Pages site to find the one or two doctors working in and around those areas.

I came up with two of my doctors that way.

Step 2:

To find my third doc, I went back to the newspapers again, this time looking for those articles in which local journalists had already spoken to many affected people, including – you guessed it - doctors.

It was in a metropolitan daily that I found an article that mentioned a doctor, and it was he who would become my third interviewee.

It was also from previous articles that I found the name and location of a doctor whose business and home had been destroyed by fire two years ago.

Again, it was then a simple case of going back to the Yellow Pages to find their business numbers.

Step 3:

Before I started phoning though - because, remember, I was still planning here – I thought about who else in the medical community could give me information on how doctors can prepare for, and recover from, a disastrous event.

This is where having a niche in which you write really helps. Because I specialise in writing about health and writing for medical markets, I knew the local health care organisations that had doctors as their members.

If I hadn’t had that inside knowledge though, I could have found the same organisations by going through back issues or online versions of health publications written for doctors; I could have been cheeky and called a doctor's surgery and asked which group represented their doctors; or I could have even conducted a good old-fashioned internet search.

For example, if I were looking for an organisation that represented accountants, I would have searched for ‘accountant’ + ‘association’ + ‘au’. (For the record, CPA Australia and the National Institute of Accountants come up in the number one and two spots when you punch in that search criteria.)

Step 4:

The final step, once you know who you want to interview, is getting them to speak to you.

Chances are you have found their phone number or email address in your search, so my advice is to simply call, or write, and tell them who you are and what you want from them.

But - and this is the critical part - how you conduct yourself on the phone is vital in getting them to agree to speak to you.

Here’s what I do when I get any potential interviewee on the phone:

• I am extremely polite and ask them immediately if this is an okay time to talk.

• I am very succinct when I am telling them why I am calling. You won’t instil confidence or trust in them if you waffle. I tell them which publication I am writing for and give them a quick summary of the sorts of things I will be asking them.

• In every single instance, I let them know that I realise their time is precious and that I am very, very grateful if they are prepared to talk to me. Remember, they are doing you a favour! It is their prerogative if they speak to you or not. Never, ever think of yourself or your job as so important that they should feel privileged to speak to you.

• Give them plenty of time if they want to chat, empathise with them if they are pouring their heart out to you and never make judgmental comments.

At the end of the day, who you interview is going to depend entirely on the story you are writing and the publication you are writing for.

But here is a quick guide as to some of the main places where you can find potential interviewees:
• Ask your friends and colleagues. They can make good case studies themselves, or put you in touch with someone who could be.

• Contact public relations companies that work in the field which you are writing about. i.e. a PR company that does the media for a well-known cosmetic surgery company may be able to find you a woman who has had 20 facelifts.

• Read online and print articles on similar topics to get ideas and names of individuals, experts and representative groups.

• Do internet searches for associations or representative and advocate groups. i.e. a story on heart disease would no doubt benefit from a call to the Heart Foundation of Australia. These groups can provide you with all the facts and often a case study or two too.

• Go back to people and contacts you have interviewed before.

In my next blog post, read the stories of some of those people who continue to feel the impact of the January floods - and may do for months or even years to come.

Related posts
My tools of trade: recommended resources for journalists


For more information about Pamela Wilson or WriteSmart, log on to http://www.writesmart.com.au/


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