Nov. 2-8, 2001
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Mala Cunningham
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Mala Cunningham

Psychologist follows desire to help at Ground Zero

By Anne Bromley

"It’s a very haunted place,” said U.Va. psychologist Mala Cunningham of what has come to be known around the world as Ground Zero.

It was not long after first hearing of the need for grief counselors that Cunningham, who works in the Health System’s Heart Center and teaches alternative therapies in the Medical School, headed for New York City to volunteer her services.

What she found in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center was the striking dichotomy of what humans are capable of — the kind of hatred that could cause such destruction and the kind of heroism and support people continue to give to each other.

For Cunningham, who shared her experience earlier this week at a brown bag lunch sponsored by the Humanities in Medicine program, it was not just a professional visit, but personal and spiritual as well. She made the journey without having plotted a course of action. All she knew was she that wanted to contribute her expertise towards healing.

She took with her a cache of small tokens — angel pins and flag pins — to give to people she encountered. They became an instant bridge to exhausted rescue workers and traumatized family members when she offered a willingness to listen. “The universe was supporting my efforts,” Cunningham said, explaining that she bought the pins with funds donated by the School of Medicine and Charlottesville Mayor Blake Caravati.

Quiet Defiance

In the haunted village the evening was dark and shadowy.
Generators cast an eerie light
across the barricaded ruins
of Ground Zero.
Steel fences, police, National Guard held their vigil long
into the cold night.
I noticed him walking dazed amongst the twisted steel
and scent of death. His posture spoke of a man half
broken and half defiant
wrapped in the American flag.
He moved slowly, aimlessly up one street and down another.
Circling Ground Zero.
Holding to a vigil that we all understood.
Each step echoed the horror
of the step before
but the flag was his refuge.
His symbolic gesture of comfort.
They killed his people and shattered the buildings
But they could never destroy the American spirit.

When she arrived in New York, she discovered an overflow of volunteers and a complicated scheduling process. So, she simply headed to Ground Zero and started handing out pins and consolation. It wasn’t long before she began visiting police stations and a medical examiner’s office and working at Pier 94, the temporary village set up to dispense much needed services to victims and families.

Cunningham also worked at a holistic center giving massages to weary rescue workers. She described how one policeman came in and laid his guns and bulletproof vest on the massage table, juxtaposing between his tools of violence and the healing hands of the therapist. When she began to work on his muscles, “his back was like a brick wall,” she said. “These people are armored in more ways than one. It’s the way they cope.”

Despite acute exhaustion from long shifts in horrendous conditions, many of the workers didn’t want to go home, she said. “They were driven to find survivors, even though they basically knew, after two or three days, that they wouldn’t find anyone else alive.”

They had nowhere to go with their grief, she said, and tried to keep it contained so they could push forward with their work. They were reluctant to burden their families, already worried about their dangerous working conditions. Everyone was, affected, she said, emotionally and physically — even the rescue dogs.

She counseled one woman, an artist whose studio had been in the World Trade Center and whose artwork revolved around its image. She had lost her livelihood and didn’t know how to get on with her life. Cunningham reassured her that millions of people all over the world were praying for every individual touched by the tragedy.

On the last night of her stay, Cunningham revisited Ground Zero, where the ash of pulverized cement was still six inches thick and the smell of death toxic. There she saw a man wandering the streets, his eyes full of despair, his body draped in the hope of an American flag. His troubled visage inspired her to write the above poem.


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