Post Rafina fires … “I saved my family and property” one family’s story

October 10th is annual World Mental Health day (WHO-MentalHlth) and all that Falls upon us may include recent or past traumatic events, including the Rafina “Mati” fire of July 2018 (see past post ‘Ashes to Ashes‘). As psychosocial and public health professionals we refer to post-symptoms including anxiety and depression, loss of sleep etc. which may be indicative of a post-traumatic stress disorder after a shocking or life-threatening event. Last September I interviewed and photographed one woman and her property in Rafina, 10 minutes away from “Mati” where approximately 100 people lost their lives in July 2018.

Fire moves fast, mostly passing on the ground or heat melting  leaves from trees and plants, or parts of homes.  We heard so many stories of ‘survival’ of people jumping into the sea and swimming for hours to be rescued by the Hellenic Coast Guard, or running down stone pathways away from the fire. Just a few hours…. that was the time it took for utter devastation. This post focuses on survival. How one woman’s story of saving her home and property with her family.   Eleftheria (her name means ‘freedom’ in Greek) is in her 70’s and she made it through using prevention smarts, quick courageous actions during the event, and likely one who has high health literacy.

Eleftheria_This close

This close….I saved my family and property.

Traveling to their home I did not know what to expect.  Realizing the last time I visited the area was the beginning of July, coming ‘this close’ to the now tragically famed “Mati” fire where many people died, many lost their property.  What I encountered left me open-mouthed.  This family’s home was completely surrounded by ashes — several homes and surrounding land were burned to the ground. A few streets down there were blackened charcoal regions, houses with burned windows in a corner part near one of the small ports nearby — there an elderly couple died of smoke inhalation.  They did not know each other — but it came this close — it could have been them….

To my amazement, as we walked around their four-acre land only a few trees were burned, though clearly evidence of heat-fire having passed as if on the surface of the earth’s skin… Now only happy animals play or search for food in this family’s fields.  This includes 40 chickens (only one was lost in the fire because it got scared and wandered off), two dogs — a shepherd and a hound, almost all bee hives were untethered.  I sat down with Eleftheria to hear her family’s story, what they did and how…. in hindsight they took risks but they managed to stay out of harm’s way near cemented parts of the home (like their basement) — we now understand for the area there was no clear evacuation plan of the region by the local municipality or media. As a matter of fact most families watching the news that day thought that the fires were only happening in the Peloponnese in Kineta, and from Pendeli (in Attica) fires moved quick as if in a large downward ski slope all the way trough Rafina, to the Mati area.

“It took two hours”, “I thought it was the end of my parents” said her daughter, “I thought it was the end…” said her husband who is now over 95 years old.  But Eleftheria kept moving fast, protecting the animals, using water, throwing dirt or using large branches and wool type blankets to put out fires.  As she says, the primary reason they survived was due to prevention.  Some neighbors who do not maintain their field or surrounding areas to their home had much damage done. In thinking of around the-year prevention, she shared these tips and actions:

  1. clear bushes and surrounding trash, tall grasses, cut down trees year-round, especially during the fire season (summer, dry months)
  2. some plants/trees like cactus fruit, fig trees, aloe vera prevent fire from spreading due to their deep roots which keep moisture in — maintain and plant more of them!
  3. bee hives should have a solid type foundation away from tall grasses if possible
  4. glass windows closed — wooden or plastic panels pulled away so that fire does not pass, and any melting doesn’t prevent doors from opening (for quick escapes)
  5. water storage areas (wells, containers) replenishing and cleaning fire equipment and extinguishers once a year as maintenance
  6. evacuation route pre-planned if possible (knowing the area, clear road/route signs)

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Eleftheria gives me a jar of honey taking a pose for a photograph. I am happy that she, her family, and all the animals she cares for and loves, made it through this tragedy safe and sound….. may we continue sharing lessons for locals as well as our governments to look at “lessons learned” towards improving communication and better planning efforts.

We deserve better.

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Peaches oh 🍑 peaches!

61ED0575-A0CD-4AD8-ACC2-0ED00F7C2AB8I’ve never met a peach I didn’t like. Can you tell the difference among white or yellow flesh type peaches, nectarines and other local varieties? I used to live in the southern U.S. “Peach State” Georgia which first got me thinking and making wonderful peach tart-pies. I also got to appreciate the rich character and identity of each place I’ve lived in. We often overlook symbols and sayings but these add value to our historical knowledge as well as likely contributing to our health literacy. Phrases like “how peachy” can be positive while saying “oh, peaches!” could be a softer more comical way to express one’s frustration. So yes, we sometimes use “fruit language” when we speak.

Not only are peaches an attractive looking fruit, they taste great, are low calorie and have necessary fiber and carbohydrates and vitamins, including potassium and Vitamins A through E to help us function better during our day — particularly good for our skin fighting against the stress of everyday pollution. Furthermore, peaches are supposedly good for those with high blood pressure but as with everything please eat in moderation…yes, if fresh peaches are not an option, eating canned peaches with strained Greek-style yogurt is a low calorie meal especially at the start of your day. If you can afford the extra calories try “peaches and cream”, another southern U.S. tradition which is especially delicious. I particularly like one variety which comes from the region of Naoussa in Northern Greece where it looks like a squished flat peach but it’s sweeter than other varieties.

Here’s a secret for a great peach tart — bake the crust for about 15 minutes before then add your peach mixture and if your peaches are tart just add some more brown sugar! Yummy…

 

 

Ashes to ashes…tragedy befalls us

Tragedy befalls us or does it? in Greek «τραγωδία» is a word referring to a very sad situation that doesn’t have a very happy conclusion as it leads to suffering and most often death. When we say “befalls” it refers to things that happen by fate or chance. In the ancient world there were perfect explanations for everything, and usually involved ‘gods’ or other deities and mere mortals often trying somehow to make things “right” as they raise for us ethical or real life dilemmas.

Taking a recent trip with a group of colleagues and friends to the ancient theater of Epidaurus, we experienced one of the most famous of Sophocles’ plays “Electra” which the wise poet wrote towards the end of his career playing up the post-trauma of the Trojan war in the house of Mycenaean King Agamemnon (more here: classical literature ‘Elektra’). Though many directors change the structure of the plays to make them more to modern standards, this version was truly respectful of the storyline. More importantly we FELT the pain and inner struggle of the characters…I can still hear the drums beating as fast as my heart in the evening darkness as the actors in unison walked slowly with floating robes like solemn soldiers on a mission.

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Concluding the play Elektra, Epidaurus Summer 2018 Festival

This ancient theater in the valley of the Peloponnese is an acoustical marvel, and many world famous actors have passed through including Kevin Spacey as King Richard III (by William Shakespeare) honoring the ancient tradition with exceptional performance — glimpses can be had on this ‘World Stage’ clip.

I still recall Elektra’s brother Orestes’ blood-stained arms, the circles of ashes made in Elektra’s frenzy. Ashes to ashes, from dust to dust, this indeed is all we are made of. How ironic that the very next day we would be witnessing real-time tragedies of fire and ashes with almost 100 people dead in the ‘eye’ (mati) of Rafina, a seaside community outside of Athens (coincidentally the most losses in a fire since WWII), multitudes of animals, properties and nature burned within a matter of hours…. in the days following rainstorms and flooded streets in many parts of Greece as well as a “state of emergency” in California fires on the other side of the planet this year with several firefighters already dead and almost 100,000 acres of land burned to the ground.  Apparently since last year a sobering 60 servicemen have lost their lives on duty from such things like falling trees, bulldozers, etc. (more in the Mercury News article)

Unfortunately, tragedy befell Greece, and this is due to several factors in my humble opinion —

  • communication  breakdowns — in many countries in a state of emergency the military and the government have the right to take over a situation that is out of hand and work directly with media and municipalities.
  • organization and planning — ditto for this, but we know in the summer with high winds fires are constantly being set off, what are we doing to monitor beyond forest volunteers?  what about having a ‘drone watch’? See aerial surveillance for legislatures.
  • the “oh brother” syndrome («ωχ αδελφέ μου») — really now, you ARE global citizens so act like one!
  • environmental preparedness and social marketing — cutting down overgrowth, keeping water hydrants functioning, a system of communication (sirens, media buzz sound, megaphones), volunteers patrolling forests. One favorite character that was ‘built in’ U.S. culture was Smokey the bear to ‘prevent wildfires’ including some practical how-to steps…
  • health literacy about fires — taking care with outdoor fires (beach, camp, etc.), understanding that plastic and other waste (that people often leave near bushes on the sides of the roads) can be ‘fuel’ for any set fire.  If near a fire and no access to water hoses or water (many people were saved because they went to sea) keeping wet or wool blankets, crawling on the ground to avoid smoke inhalation, having adequate fire drills (and alternate with earthquake drills in schools once a year at least!), the need to have smoke detectors as well as functioning fire hydrants, firemen equipped with supplies (addressing shortages in Greece), using volunteers effectively, understanding how important time is when there are high winds…..moving quickly is of the utmost importance.

This tragedy could have happened to any government (or political party) but the situation was all too familiar to the fires back in 2007… it was purposeful arson in many parts that also ended in tragedy. However we know that prior to 2007 the persons responsible for the fire brigade planning in the country seemed to have more clear plans to make clear paths for the fires not to ‘jump’, cutting down overgrown trees, etc.  There are so many unpaved roads, no street signs, no functioning fire hydrants (or none at all) and the list goes on and on. Notably when systems don’t work (systems), we need to test and change them to be more effective as public safety and the public’s health should override any individual ‘rights’ this is why public health law exists!

What’s left now for many are feelings of emptiness and anger for many (typical of grief and post-traumatic symptoms that can range from loss of sleep to anxiety or the need to self-medicate). Grief or “bereavement” Counseling is needed and it is important to continue support groups and understand that even those watching the news may have anxiety or worse panic attack type reactions (children are in particular vulnerable to anxiety so it’s important to discuss with them ways to feel safe and express their sad or angry feelings). Play and music therapy are useful as are regular counseling and parenting techniques. A local bookstore has a book for kids emphasizing the circle of life and loss for children to understand (Εκδόσεις Παπαδόπουλος «Η Έλλη και ο Κύκλος της Ζωής» — Papadopoulos book publishers “Ellie and the Circle of Life”) but there are no books in Greek specific to dealing with traumatic events. A spiritual approach and books like Thomas Moore’s Dark Nights of the Soul help people who have experienced loss and difficult life ordeals. There are several theories about the stages of bereavement and people can feel denial that it happened (avoidance), anger, or try to accept it and move on. Particular emphasis on expressing sadness and anger is needed here.  It’s also not easy for servicemen (people) to endure everything from evacuating to picking up the corpses. There are many groups, therapists who use cognitive behavioral, meditation, and virtual reality techniques proven to be effective with these workers.

We are angry at the government and inefficiency. Mr. Tosca, the Ministry of Internal Affairs recently resigned, but nothing will change unless we re-evaluate and organize better — house in order, country in order, and see my past post on Kondo method. We can help Greece, a country in its worse crisis since WWII, by donating to worthwhile groups and initiatives like Act4Greece or The Hellenic Initiative, and Red Cross initiatives for those affected. In addition some self-care on a daily and weekly level like guided meditation helps. If we do this at least 3 times a week (much like exercise habits) and I particularly liked this one to bring more inner peace:

We cannot change that which we cannot control but YES we can learn to be more effective for the betterment of our communities.

 

 

 

Winter Solstice, The old and new

It’s bleak in the winter, cold, we often just want to snuggle up with a hot chocolate a blanket, a book, near a good warm fire, some alone, others with special people, pets, in the comfort of “home”. In  thinking of our physical, mental, and spiritual need of “balance” it is important to remind ourselves about some of the old to new world traditions, and how we may benefit from better understanding towards an improved life.

Celebrating the winter and summer solstice goes back to ancient times in places like Syria where it seems we only hear negative press these days. These traditions were more often linked to astronomy, once linked to the ancient gods of Greece and Rome (the sun-God Apollo); the Celts and places like Stonehenge were thought to keep track of these solstice related equinoxes, and we can learn much from even the Farmer’s Almanac!

Even more interesting this year after about 150 years we witnessed the “Super” Blue Blood Full Moon a rare phenomenon. Indeed it makes Ancient Greek Temples like the Parthenon aglow! Notably our more traditional customs and celebrations are simply, ways to bridge the pagan with the modern religious and cultural world, hence we can learn more about commonality,  tolerance and respect.

d3f76162-02db-474d-8105-c416d523deeb.jpegCelebrate in your own way, and think of adapting the following:

1) Warm drinks  — whether cinnamon spice in warm apple cider, or mulled wine are good “heating” drinks for the body. There are many great recipes.

2) Red red wine — those who live to enjoy wine might like more reds accompanied by heavier foods — and yes you’re allowed more fat this time of year, it is necessary as it burns more easily ! Remember winter fruits like quince and pomegranates (check out more on the latter tradition, here). Enjoying with friends or other special people does wonders for your mental health.

 

3) Keep body covered — take care of keeping warm with hat, scarves, gloves and mittens. I’m a big fan of checking out interesting ideas on Etsy! Wool or wool-blend pants, sweaters, socks are better heat conductors. Though fur is glamorous and warm let’s not overdo it and think of those animals…is it necessary?

4) Keep active — take care when shoveling snow for the back and the heart. Try some winter sports like skiing, ice skating, hockey, or simply making angels in the snow and snowmen, have fun regardless!

5) Embrace the light — you can reflect on yesteryear by adding light in your home (or workplace if allowed) via a fireplace, candles (careful of too many paraffins not good for you to breathe in too many toxins), a favorite brand is Yankee Candles.

Speaking of entrepreneurs, has anyone checked out the story of how this young teen “Yankee” from Massachusetts made his first scented candle from melted crayons for his mom which turned into a worldwide success? Candles indeed make our senses both calming and excitable — not referring necessarily to scenes from the movies “Nine and a Half Weeks” or “Fifty Shades of Grey” though some say the former movie was more interesting and “healthier” than the latter in terms of women’s relationship limits.  Hmmm. It certainly gives a different meaning to physical and mental exercise (!)

Reflecting on yesteryear

 

Ring in the new year in joy, sail to new destinations and deal with the “rough seas” of life.

This past year was quite difficult for many with losses (financial, personal), past months we captured some of the tragic news happening in the US, in Greece, Spain see Keeping Afloat Seemingly Chaos even some “bad luck” like 20+ people dead in a flash flood, a ceiling caving in on the main entertainment DJ and another case of a snow avalanche killing one snowboarding tourist  — granted the news never emphasizing that homes were allowed to be built illegally in the valley, or that the snowboarder went to a closed ski resort, where were the safety precautions? Others dying in shootings or intentional terror type acts in the name of their “identity”, or losing their homes in hurricanes throughout Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.

You might say “life happens”, indeed. Some things could be preventable. As some are building beachside sandcastles in Southern Hemispheres others are awakened in early morning hours with our beds shaking — no it wasn’t Santa’s sleigh landing on our rooftop — indeed experiencing a small earthquake enough to get our hearts active again. When it comes to man versus nature, the latter will always win.

The morning of the last day of December, a favorite uncle beloved by all family, colleagues, friends for his kind and creative nature, lost a painful fight with liver cancer, just short of his 70th birthday. For me he was one of the great life philosophers and taught us about overseeing negativity and being humane. Coincidentally my recent writing about aging and the end of life and how being or building health literacy can help us all adjust to life’s ups and downs, helps to reflect on the sweet memories of yesteryear. Last year’s New Years post was plenty full with thinking of resolutions, and today’s CNN article really summed up what many of us health educators, counselors, teachers have been saying for years including mindfulness, balanced eating with plenty fruits and vegetables, and the vitality of drinking plenty of water!  Some other intentional resolutions to make it simple and real:

1) clean up your home and your environment, keeping in mind the 3 “R”s Reduce, Reuse, Recycle ♻️

2) be light of heart and kind in spirit …forgive and move on, remember doing good goes a long way!

3) daydream, dream small and big, this is what gives us hope. Yes the reason we had a tinker bell in Peter Pan or find “hope” in Pandora’s box is really the gift of “light”. This is necessary for our taking steps forward and believing in ourselves. So where is your dream catcher?304f034f-bf59-43bc-ad30-2b19a27e0f0c.jpeg

4) Accept both sides of joy and sadness — the movie “Inside Out” made this simple, plausible, that even children can understand the necessity of melancholy; it is OK to talk about the darker sides of human nature (even stubbornness, stupidity, and narcissism) but learn to work on yourself and either accept small faults in others or realize life is short no one is perfect. Do not dwell in inner darkness very long and if it gets too bleak seek support!

There is more reflecting to do, Leider and Shapiro’s book “Repacking Your Bags” will   help you do just that so consider it for one of this year’s “must reads” and we’ll get into that later in another posting….so much to say!

Enjoy each moment, and have a wonderfully brilliant new year!

When systems don’t work…daily hassles and political mishaps

Long lines and standing for hours, elderly people fainting, headaches, confusion of what and how a new system works for a new electronic train ticket-card system, even the most literate of us can’t figure out the process….the current Greek Transport Minister unjustifiably focusing on blaming a businessman of “cheating the government” who started a company amidst the Greek crisis in 2011 (Taxibeat) the latter it turns out has paid legal fees as his company headquarters are in U.K. Yet, the aforementioned Minister tries to offset the REAL issues of the transport procedural mess. What a political mishap!

Post getting the transport cards what about thinking of saving trees 🌲 and not having so many plastic bags as you see from the trash of papers in or should I say outside the seemingly useless rubbish bins?!

Daily hassles and constant policy and legal changes add to burden of mental and physical health of populations. If Holmes and Rahe who created the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS) in 1967 indicating that our increased levels of stress due to multitudes of hassles can cause serious illness,  wanted a real-world lab they would have great field research! As a matter of fact the Greek people could write the book of “The Hassles of Our Everyday Lives!” But why? Why can’t governments teach their own the PDSA cycles — Plan, Do, Study, Act? Adequate hassle-less procedures to easier access are part of building our community’s health literacy. We can pilot test the system, fix the kinks and run again, to ensure a more flawless implementation…. and not to constantly reinvent the wheel, too logical? I know…

“Seasonal” and all that Falls…

Four seasons, all with their special blessings. Every Fall as school and academic year starts we always start with reminders of what the words “seasonal” can mean, depending on your interest or conditions…move to enhance our own and others’  health literacy!

    • seasonal reminders like “World Mental Health Day” (on October 10th) or focusing on eye exams through campaigns line “World Sight Day” (2nd Thursday monthly —  this year October 12th)  are good ways to brush up our skills and increase our health education  and social marketing approaches
    • seasonal allergies — most happen in spring and Fall so good for us to remind families or school of warning signs and think of allergy tests for awareness and prevention
    • seasonal eating — farmer’s market, choice of vegetables or fruit, thinking of compotes and other goodies to last us through the winter months ahead.

A day of reminders of seasonal fruit like quince (κιδώνι), pomegranates,  olives (the ones we eat, and the ones later made into olive oil…so many varieties!)

We visited a wonderful place that is open to the public offering an escape for families, all ages, sizes as there are plenty of physical and cultural activities to do and the best part? Getting in our 10,000 steps daily walking. The Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center in Attica, Greece is one of many similar places around the globe that are accessible and free to the community.  Today was particularly good as the smell of petroleum has subsided from last month’s disaster oil spill in the nearby Saronic Gulf. The bounty of vegetables and fruits that have been creatively and strategically planted was evident — more on Fall to winter seasonal  fruit later!