Saturday, September 5, 1998

Doctor draws on experience

IWK psychiatrist also counselled at Pan Am disaster

By Shaune MacKinlay -- The Daily News

Dr. Vivek Kusumakar is no stranger to air disasters. The Halifax psychiatrist has twice had the unlikely misfortune of living near a crash site.

The first time was when Pam Am Flight 103 crashed into Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. The second came Wednesday with the sad end of Swissair Flight 111.

Both times, he was asked to help people cope with the tragedy.

Kusumakar, head of psychiatry at the IWK Grace Health Centre in Halifax, is among a group of professionals from his hospital and the QEII Health Sciences Centres, who has offered its help to the families of the Swissair disaster, military members involved in the search for debris and bodies, and medical experts needed to help identify remains.

"The whole purpose of our operation is to prevent people from bottling things in, to help them understand that this is not a psychiatric disorder, but a very understandable response to a very extraordinary situation," he said.

Families of the 229 people who died in the crash of the MD-11 about eight kilometres off Peggy's Cove will experience a range of emotions, he said.

"At this stage, it is quite common in the first two to five days for them to have disbelief and a sort of numbness, and there may not be any overt outpouring of emotions.

"It's very common, again at this stage, to feel a need to be near the crash site," he said.

The families have to come to terms not just with the death of their loved ones, Kusumakar said, but also with the possibility the remains might not be recovered.

Frustration, anger, and exhaustion are to be expected as families look for difficult answers in a foreign country, he said.

Beyond the families, there are scores of other people touched by the tragedy, from air-traffic controllers, to those on the frontline in the grim search for remains, personal effects, and the many pieces of the aircraft.

"There will be exhaustion, physical and emotional exhaustion, which is the commonest thing. Then they have to come to terms with the fact that they're only bringing up body parts," Kusumakar said.

In Lockerbie, Kusumakar counseled the families and friends of people killed on the ground. All 259 people aboard Pam Am Flight 103 were killed and another 11 died on the ground when a bomb hidden in a suitcase exploded in the plane's forward cargo hold on Dec. 21, 1988.

"Although it was negative at one level, on another level, it was very positive because it meant that the families and the local community shared very clearly in the grief.

"Here we feel for them, rather than we feel with them."

It became clear shortly after the Lockerbie crash that terrorists were to blame. Kusumakar said family members of Flight 111 victims are also likely to look for somewhere to assign blame.

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