People make sense of situations based on their own experiences. Mine is framed by disparate ones, threaded together by an understanding of how people respond to crisis and change, and how planning, preparedness, and support can make all the difference. To live is to change. We must all be able to move away from the known, in part or in whole, and move towards something new or different and sometimes uncomfortable. Humans, however, are generally creatures of habit. It’s necessary to form relationships and to organize one’s life in order to function day-to-day. When there is time to adapt to change, like aging, we tend to fare better. When change occurs abruptly—say a cancer diagnosis—and the time to adapt is condensed, support and resources are essential in helping us to regain our bearings and resilience. The degree of necessary support depends on our adaptation skills and level of resilience going into the crisis. I observed this early in my career, leading a major corporation’s Human Resource functions and processes of organizational development and change management, which are designed to bring order to change in a manner that mitigates employees’ response to it, and ensures a business can continue to deliver results. Later, I worked in a hospice providing supportive services to individuals and families as they moved through the most important and final change in their lives, and the one for which they are least prepared. And now, as CEO of Cancer Support Community Central New Jersey, our team of social workers and allied health professionals provide vital psychosocial support and services to people who never expected that they or a loved one would be facing a life threatening health crisis. Additionally, I have spent many years in emergency management roles within the non-profit and government sector. In all of these situations, I learned that it is critical to provide people with knowledge and coping skills, as well as education to normalize the concept that we need to live life to its fullest, and as healthily as possible. With that construct in mind, we must also plan ahead and prepare individuals and communities before, during, or after a disaster. All of my experiences tell me that being prepared has nothing to do with panic and fear; in fact it is the polar opposite. Thoughtful and enlightened planning for the things you know; can reasonably anticipate; or imagine as worst case scenarios makes a tremendous difference in readiness.

Let’s consider our community first responders. What would it feel like to have an EMT arrive to help you in an emergency—say, a car accident—and you quickly realize that he/she doesn’t know what he/she is doing due to an obvious lack of training or resources? What if the reason for this deficiency was that your town decided to cut the rescue squad’s funding during the budget process, resulting in the inability to provide needed ongoing training and drills, or the purchase and maintenance of equipment needed to save lives? What if this person were a police officer or firefighter? Seems unimaginable. We count on these professionals because our lives depend on them every day. In fact, between emergencies, volunteer and employed first responders stay prepared through continual training, education, and practice to keep their skills current. Beyond staying current and competent, these preparedness efforts build the confidence needed to walk into an emergency situation, because it helps to manage anxiety and fear, which are natural human responses to a crisis.

However, with public health, it seems to be out of sight, out of mind. Most people understand the role in terms of what they see in their local communities, like certifying food safety at restaurants, or only in a crisis like COVID-19. The average person does not consider that from the national level down to states, counties, and local communities, public health is laser focused daily on improving the health and well-being of residents; reducing health disparities; and providing disease surveillance and containment. Whether we realize it or not, public health professionals touch our lives every day.

Individuals also have a role in preparedness and response. In 2004, as we watched a tsunami devastate Indonesia, who could forget the stories or the images? What stayed with me was one survivor’s story. Somewhere he had read about the telltale signs of a tsunami and what to do if it happened: when the ocean recedes, get to higher ground. Knowing that small but essential piece of information probably saved his life and others around him. While everyone that day was a victim, each person had a different response. Some stared out to sea in shock as the wave approached; some panicked not knowing what was happening or what to do; and some knew the signs and the actions they needed to take to save their lives and others. In the aftermath, survivors with lifesaving skills were essential to others around them, because as with most disasters and emergencies, it takes time for rescuers to arrive. Every day people become first responders. Being prepared as individuals builds confidence to act in an emergency, and saves lives.

Prepared at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 14, 2020.