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Psychologists help Mexico deal with double trauma of quake
By Elodie CUZIN
Mexico City (AFP) Sept 23, 2017

Frida, the four-legged heroine of Mexico's quake rescues
Mexico City (AFP) Sept 23, 2017 - With protective goggles fitted under her furry ears and boots on all four paws, Frida wags her tail as she scales the mountains of rubble left by this week's devastating earthquake in Mexico.

The golden labrador is using her sense of smell to try to detect any survivors left in the wreckage of buildings brought down on Tuesday by the 7.1-magnitude earthquake.

The courageous canine has become iconic in Mexico, a four-legged symbol of the solidarity behind the rescue operations whose fame has been spread on television and social media.

One man in Mexico's northeast has even had her image tattooed on his arm. And a t-shirt maker is selling a line with her face above the slogan "We can be heroes."

The dog is part of the Canine Unit of Mexico's Navy, which has been active at the sites of 39 buildings brought down in the quake.

Frida was notably deployed at a collapsed school in the capital's south where 19 children and six adults died. Officials say there is still the possibility that an adult is trapped alive in the debris.

"Frida is a specialist in detecting people alive under rubble," her handler, Petty Officer Israel Arauz told AFP.

In her career, which included being sent to Ecuador for a major earthquake last year, she has saved 12 lives, he said.

When she turns up, many Marines drop their stern military demeanor to rush to pet her and have a photo taken alongside her.

"She brings joy, tenderness and hope. Civilians salute her and applaud her in the street," said one soldier as he rubbed her belly.

The dog's personality is "very gentle, but also very strong temperamentally," Arauz said, adding that she would likely be retired next year when she turns eight.

"For me, it's an honor to handle her on these missions," he said.

- Dogs lost and found -

The spontaneous display of solidarity in Mexico against natural disasters has been a source of surprise and inspiration internationally.

Media around the world covering this week's quake have highlighted the generosity of Mexicans who have donated food, medicine and basic supplies, as well as the volunteers who have leaped forward to help professional emergency crews to remove rubble.

That same rush to help can be seen with dog-owners.

"We have come to support the UNAM brigade to detect people and rescue them," said Jean Louis Zuniga, an amateur dog trainer who turned up at a collapsed building with several of his charges, including a labrador, a border collie, a boxer and a pitbull.

But dogs weren't only part of the rescue teams -- they were also among the quake's victims. Several died, others became trapped in the rubble after losing their owners or becoming injured.

Many have been rescued, with some being hauled out of windows on ropes.

There are also free veterinarian clinics dotted around the city to look after injured animals, and centers dispensing dog food and medicine.

"I'm so desperate, I am looking for my Candy," said Cecilia Vega, a university student ceaselessly going to each center, with a photograph in hand of her chihuahua missing since the earthquake.

Like Candy, many dogs have been found without owners. Images of them have started to circulate on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, on forums created especially.

"She's called Precious and she got lost during the earthquake. She has problems breathing and is skittish," read one posting on the Twitter feed of @MascotasSismo (translated as QuakePets), under the image of a white dog with the tongue hanging out.

"Back with his owners!" read another, showing Brook, a grey pitbull.

Whether wearing white lab coats, red rescue worker vests or dressed as clowns, the psychologists standing by as Mexico picks through the rubble of this week's earthquakes are ready to help a shaken nation deal with its trauma.

Whole brigades of volunteer psychologists have deployed to the collapsed buildings in Mexico City where anguished families are clinging to the fading hope that their loved ones are alive inside.

Exhausted rescuers are still working around the clock to untangle the wreckage, despite the fact that the crucial 72-hour window for finding survivors from Tuesday's quake has closed.

"The families still have hope, but we psychologists are starting to prepare ourselves to counsel them in the context of mourning," said Penelope Exzacarias at a collapsed office building in Mexico City's trendy Roma neighborhood.

Wearing a red vest marked with the word "Psychologist," Exzacarias was on hand to support victims' families -- mainly by listening.

"With every passing minute, hope is diminishing for them. It's a very painful moment," she told AFP.

- 'The trauma comes after' -

The psychologists are also on hand to help the thousands of rescue workers, many of them volunteers, who have been grappling with the rubble since Tuesday.

"It's hard to work non-stop for so long and to see a dead body, even if you're used to it," said Lorena Villalpando, another psychologist at the scene wearing a red vest and orange helmet declaring her profession.

Mexico's trauma is all the greater because the tragedy struck on the anniversary of the worst earthquake in its history, which killed more than 10,000 people in 1985.

Even for people not directly affected by the destruction in this sprawling city of 20 million people, there can be lasting trauma, said Alan Schejtman Deutsch of the Mexican Psychoanalytical Association, who is coordinating the brigades of volunteer psychologists.

"Right now, people are very active, trying to get (victims) out, to clear the rubble, but experience shows that post-traumatic stress hits after several days or weeks," he said.

- Children at risk -

A specialist clinic in the nearby neighborhood of Condesa was signing up volunteer psychologists to counsel residents of the hard-hit district.

The most common symptoms of PTSD they were seeing: "constantly reliving the moment of trauma in your mind, a high level of anxiety, trouble sleeping, lack of appetite," said Schejtman.

Children are at risk too, he emphasized.

"Children actually suffer much worse because they assimilate all this information in a completely different way. They don't really understand what's happening... and death is a subject they understand even less," he said.

In response, therapists dressed as clowns have taken to the streets of Mexico City to both entertain children and inform their parents about the importance of dealing with possible trauma.

- Mother and daughter -

Marcela Cardoso Miranda was seven years old when the 1985 earthquake hit.

Thirty-two years on, she relived the trauma as a parent, crossing the city in search of her daughter, age seven herself.

"A lot of us lived through '85, and because of that experience, today, memories of our loss, whether direct or indirect, material or physical, are surging back to the surface," said Cardoso, herself a psychologist volunteering at the Condesa clinic.

"We're living in a climate of stress, depression, uncertainty, and even if the city seems to be returning to normal in some places, the reality is that there is a collective feeling of loss, that there's been a disaster."

But that sense of loss has also given rise to remarkable solidarity.

"We have been overwhelmed by this outpouring of people helping each other, something we don't manage to do the rest of the time," Cardoso said.

Desperate parents, missing children at quake-hit Mexico City school
Mexico City (AFP) Sept 20, 2017
Adriana Fargo nervously bites her lip as she waits for news on the fate of her seven-year-old daughter, feared buried in the earthquake-hit remains of a Mexico City elementary and middle school. At least 21 children died when a three story wing of the Enrique Rebsamen school collapsed after a 7.1 magnitude quake struck Mexico on Tuesday. Thirty children are missing, and some could still ... read more

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