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Healer in a Broken Land

A Maryland Psychologist Tends to the Tsunami's Psychic Wounds

By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page D01

GALLE, Sri Lanka

The boy is 10 years old. He has almond skin and long eyelashes that his parents must have loved. He holds out his coloring book for inspection, his world rendered in crayon: an A-frame house, palm trees, the sea.

The page has the sunny feel of children's art, except that the house is collapsed. The palm trees are bent sideways. The ocean is a menacing wall of water. His voice barely audible, the boy explains that this is the wave that took his mother and father. This is the moment that demolished his life. "All the water came," he tells the doctor from America.

Salisbury's Michael Finegan, addressing tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka, distributes coloring books intended to help children express their grief. (Peter S. Goodman -- The Washington Post)

Michael Finegan squats on the bare concrete floor, putting himself at the boy's level. Finegan, a clinical psychologist from Maryland, oversees a unit that helps state troopers recover from the trauma of exposure to violence and death. He worked in Calcutta with Mother Teresa. He is trained for this. Yet he is momentarily stilled. He puts an arm around this boy.

A minute later, he will stand on a chair and exhort this room filled with 125 Muslim schoolboys to mourn their losses, pausing to allow a translator to turn his words into Sinhalese. He will tell them to cry, punching his words with certainty, his voice tinged with the nasal flavor of his boyhood Queens. But now there is only one face in front of him and Finegan is lost in the emotion.

He puts the boy on his lap, asks who is taking care of him. "His sister," a teacher responds. "Is she a good cook?" The boy nods. Finegan wants to stay right here. But in this district alone, some 10,000 children have lost family. He has a program to construct, volunteers to train.

"I wanted to hold that boy, but I had a bigger job to do," he says later, trying to convince himself that he really did have to walk away from a 10-year-old newly made an orphan. "I am one man with one set of skills."

How does a person wade into such catastrophe and try to make it better, console those traumatized by loss without himself succumbing to trauma? Finegan, 49, is not one for foundering in dark thoughts. Religious and fiercely positive, he looks at devastation and sees potential rebuilding. He breaks things down, talks constantly about perseverance, focusing on what is doable and having a plan to do it.

In 1968, he built a treehouse in Alley Pond Park in Queens that was still there when he went back three years ago. When he hit his late thirties and his body went flabby, he adopted the Navy SEAL exercise regimen. When he met the Catholic bishop of Batticaloa, he sat down next to him and said, "Father, I need you to tell your priests they must work with me."

Yet, there is death around him. The shadows of death sometimes overwhelm the systems he puts into place to keep himself focused.

At dinner his first night here, another relief worker told him about a school of 1,300 students where 300 died. "I stopped eating," he says. A physician showed him a video of a local emergency room on the day of the wave, hundreds of bodies, a woman eight months pregnant dead on a gurney.

Processing the Images

At home in Salisbury, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where his wife, Mayra, two children and a Great Dane await his return, Finegan is always prepared for the chime of his pager, the word that he must drive off to something terrible.

Last summer, he remembers, came the car thief near Ocean City who led troopers on a high-speed chase up Route 113. He remembers how he came upon the scene after they had shot him, the dead man's feet sticking out from under a sheet. He remembers the photos he examined when he counseled detectives in a unit targeting pedophiles -- images of grotesque abuse, children's faces contorted in agony.

He remembers a young woman in Calcutta with lesions on her spine, exposed, how he vowed she would not die alone, how he stepped away to attend to someone else and then found her dead when he returned 10 minutes later. She had died alone. "I remember feeling as though I had failed," he says. "I cried."

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