Why do some people come through a disaster stronger and others never get over it?

That’s an answer Margaret Rateau is seeking as she begins work on her final project to earn her Ph.D. in nursing from West Virginia University.

After a catastrophe, “some people either decide to really transform and choose this as a life-altering growth experience and some people struggle their entire life with it and become depressed and bitter,” Rateau said.

First, she looked at emotional well-being in association with gender, property loss and strengthened trust in one’s fellow man. Ultimately, she wants to help disaster responders identify who might benefit most from mental health support following a catastrophe and what to do for them.

The groundwork of her project – an analysis of an ABC News poll of Hurricane Katrina survivors – was published in June in the Archives of Psychiatric Nursing. Before publication, she presented her research as a poster at the Southern Nursing Research Society in Baltimore.

Rateau got interested in the topic because of her own experience suffering a catastrophic loss.

On March 16, 2005, workers installing high-speed Internet hit the gas line to Rateau’s house in a Pittsburgh suburb. Gas built up in a drain and in the basement for two hours – and then the house exploded. Rateau’s children, Marc, then 18, and Chelsea, then 14, had come home from school, and workers had allowed them to enter the house. They were inside when it exploded.

Marc, whom Rateau describes as mildly mentally disabled, was on the second floor as the house caught fire and fell down around him. A quick-thinking neighbor talked to Marc to guide him to the edge of the second story and caught him when he jumped.

Both children survived. Chelsea, now 18, had only bumps, bruises and a few small burns. Marc, now 22, was badly hurt with burns over 44 percent of his body. He spent six weeks in a hospital burn unit and has undergone seven reconstructive surgeries on his hands. He still needs more.

The house where the Rateaus had lived for 10 years was destroyed along with almost all of their possessions.

“We were very fortunate,” Rateau said. “Our neighbors were absolutely fantastic, starting with the fellow who helped my son out of the house. For days afterward we were at the hospital, we hadn’t been back to the house. Neighbors scoured the perimeter and found pictures and things that they could salvage. Three ladies painstakingly went to a photo store and got some chemicals and things and washed and dried every photo that they could and gave them back to us. We were able, due to the kindness of some very kind people, to get some things back.

“Really good things can come out of tragedy,” she said. “It was important for me personally and professionally to lend myself to other people because I can relate to them. That makes you heal, it helps you get through tragedy and move forward.”

Her experience led Rateau, who earned her master’s degree in nursing at WVU in 1995, to study what happens to other people who survive disasters.

Margaret Rateau with husband Richard and, top row, daughter Chelsea and son Marc

Rateau analyzed data collected by ABC News from Katrina survivors one year after the hurricane. She found that almost 40 percent of the 501 participants reported long-term negative impact on their emotional well-being. At the same time, 70 percent said surviving the disaster had strengthened trust in their fellow man. That could be in large part to the outpouring of aid that happens after a catastrophe.

More women reported a long-term negative impact on emotional well-being.

“From a research perspective, it could be helpful to pursue understanding of the postdisaster challenges faced by women, how their role and responsibilities influence their experience, and approaches they use to address their challenges,” Rateau wrote in the article.

“Findings from this analysis concur with literature on increased negative impact on emotional well-being and catastrophic property losses caused by natural disaster,” she wrote. “Although residential property damage produces material losses, additional emotional strain may occur from the overwhelming task of reestablishing a stable living environment. This emotional strain may impede healthy emotional adjustment after the catastrophe.”

Rateau, who expects to complete her Ph.D. studies in 2011, recommends that researchers study further the needs of disaster victims and how medical professionals can best support them throughout the recovery process.

For information about the School of Nursing see http://www.hsc.wvu.edu/son/.


For More Information:
Andrea Brunais, HSC News Service, 304-293-7087