Monday, February 09, 2009

Heros and Heroines

This morning on CNN, I watched the mayor of New York City give the "keys to the city" to the crew of the airplane that landed safely in the Hudson River, saving the lives of everyone on board.

The captain and crew have made their way around all the major news outlets, giving interviews, getting their pictures taken, and receiving all kinds of praise and gratitude.

The captain is being called a hero and the whole affair is referred to as the "Miracle on the Hudson".

Do these people really feel like heros and heroines though? Intellectually, I guess they do, but emotionally, it is clear to me that they are suffering. Perhaps they feel more like victims? Do they welcome all the attention lavished upon them?

I saw one interview where one of the flight attendants said that she has not been able to put on her uniform since the Miracle. She just can't. Others said that they haven't returned to work. They just can't ... yet. In most interviews with the captain, he appears to be on the verge of tears.

Something that happened to me recently made me feel sad for the crew of the Miracle as I watched them on television this morning.

As some of you know, I am a Muslim chaplain in a prison. Chaplains often see things and hear things that most correctional staff (except the guards) do not. Being a chaplain can be emotionally and spiritually traumatic.

A few weeks ago, I was making my rounds in one of the restricted housing units. Part of my job is to pass each cell and make myself available to any inmate who may want to "talk". For the Muslims, I hand out prayer schedules and Islamic articles. Mostly, I provide supportive counseling and encouragement.

One particular afternoon, I passed a cell in a section that houses the acutely mentally ill who are in a therapeutic community program. As I passed the cell, I saw the inmate laying on the floor with her neck suspended in a homemade type of ligature.

This type of suicide attempt in prison is technically death by strangulation because it is usually very difficult to "hang up" due to the construction of prison cells (i.e., removing anything they can swing from). So, it is common for inmates to strangle themselves by putting a ligature around their neck and then leaning forward. If undiscovered, the inmate will pass out in a very short time and eventually die.

This inmate had rigged up a shirt or a pillowcase to the metal frame of the bed in the form of a "u", then laid on the floor face down and slipped her neck through it ... and then I came along.

I immediately called the guard over and a team went into the cell and resolved the situation. The inmate, Alhamdulillah, did not die. In no time, she was cussing everybody out and banging her head on the cell door.

The staff told me that "she does this all the time." Apparently, she does these things when she knows that staff are in the unit. She knows that someone will intervene.

They were used to her suicide gestures that she does for attention. After all, for some people, negative attention is better than no attention.

But the purpose of my post ...

When I left the prison, I was extremely upset. You see, in all my years in corrections, I have never seen anything like that. I have seen plenty of things, believe me. But never a suicide attempt. Even if it was "just for attention". It was pretty traumatic for me.

I did share about it with my husband and with two of my best Muslim sisters. Everyone agreed that Allah (swt) placed me in that situation for a reason. "Alhamdulillah, that you came by when you did, Safiyyah" I was told. "She could have died."

I was kind of like a hero.

But like the crew of the Miracle, I didn't feel like one.

The mental vision of the inmate laying on the floor like that played over and over in my head, the horrible image intruding when I least expected it. I still think about it.

There are no keys to the city for me, no TV shows. My husband and two friends have not mentioned it to me since, no one has asked me how I am, how I'm dealing with it, wondering if I'm OK.

Perhaps it's the tough image I portray to people. Like I can take it. Like I can handle it.

After all, I'm a chaplain. Sometimes I think people think that I have a special pipeline to God, Astaghfurallah. I think they think I'm extra spiritual or something. But I'm not. I'm like everyone else.

Every airplane pilot and crew attendant is trained for the possibility of perhaps one day having to deal with the unthinkable emergency.

Likewise, everyone who works in corrections, including the chaplain, is trained for the unthinkable emergencies.

It's part of our job.


Lazeena Umm Yusuf said...

Very insightful entry mashaAllah. Its true in many cases I would think people with a good heart would feel this way after playing the 'hero' role. It's nothing like in the movies where you're showered with attention and love the spotlight... it's totally understandable that these people have deeper issues rooted in what happened on the Hudson that day subhanAllah.

That's awesome that you're a chaplain in a correctional facility. My husband wanted to be a correctional officer but there was the whole beard issue... and I guess he got over the desire to be one as well, after some time of trying.

I know working in prisons as a woman is already tough, depending in what type of prison you're in. How's in like being a female Muslim? I know you don't deal with the inmates as much as an officer would - but you're still passing by all the time for inmates to be aware of you're presence.

otowi said...

Over the years I've read countless stories about heroes who ended up committing suicide themselves over various issues often related to the initial tragedy. I don't know that all the attention some get helps, even though people are just trying to be appreciative and nice. I wish them well.

mezba said...

mA I have not seen anything like that and nor do I wish to ... may Allah give you much strength to deal with what must be a really demanding job.

And I used to think dentists have it hard! :-p

Yasemin said...

This is definitely the most profound post I have ever had the pleasure of reading by you dear Safiyyah.

I was touched in a way that I cannot explain, perhaps by my grandmother's own suicide. I imagined her lifeless in the pool, just as you can't get the face of this inmate out of your mind.

I was also struck reading your post about the Hudson heroes after having just read Yosra's post about how no one in the Hudson group uttered God's name.

My deepest thoughts and prayers are with you as you continue to perform God's work. You are a hero to me today for doing what I think is the most important mission one can perform, that of saving someone from suicide. Her family (if she has one still) will be so honored and grateful for you Safiyyah, I can promise you that.

iMuslimah said...


Assalamu alaykum dear Saf,
For some reason, God meant for you to see this. Things like this change us, evolve us, bring us back to hime base, and serve as a reminder as to how FORTUNATE we are in this life.

I hope inshaallah that the trauma from this incident subsides soon. And most of Allah I hope that Allah eases the pain and suffering on this mentally ill person, For He is Most Merciful.

I am really inspired by your committment to the deen and your community.


iMuslimah said...

PS Saf,

Mumina has a new post :)

Saaleha said...

I think part of the difficulty is in accepting the whole 'why me' question. But always, we have to trust in Allah's wisdom. to seek the meaning of what comes at us in terms of where we're at at a given time. nothing happens without a reason, no?

Big Sis said...

It's lovely to hear from you too. What a fantastically well informed blog!!

noona said...

I know what you mean, and the problem is, the nature of this job and probably the people expect you to be emotionally detached, but at the end it's impossible i think, maybe you just can handle these situations better, even though with this incident you hardly could judging by the effect it had on you. I hope that you are feeling better inshallah by now.

Hajar Alwi said...

Assalamualaikum sister,

Been following your blog for a period of time, wherein this is a thought-provoking post I've read all-through this week particularly on your accounts as a chaplain.

I suppose, heroes happen to be there, doing what they think or feel needs to be done pronto, and the effects from it can be lasting. Amid the overpowering praises, there is an unmistakable silence, on several issues. Instead of the pat at the back, some requires a certain level of compassion as the Hero in the end, is just like anyone else.

Things must be rough for you at times, albeit you are doing a great deal of service to people. May you be graced with the strengths to endure the forthcomings. Insya'Allah. :)

iMuslimah said...

Hi Saf,

Assalamu alaykum.

Im still thinking about you and your recent experience, and hope inshallah that you are able to find some peace.

Barak Allahu fik,

iMuslimah & hugs from iBaby

BMW said...

That was a very thought provoking post. I am sure that was an awful sight to see. The fact that someone could be so desperate for attention that they would resort to suicide breaks my heart. People become desensitized, like the prison guards, which can be scary. I had a similar experience when I was at the hospital and a patient died. In my opinion, the staff nurses didn’t give it a blink of the eye. I was very upset. I hope that you are feeling alright and may Allah give you the strength to continue the good work you are doing.

-Ihssan <3

Anonymous said...

Ina lillahi wa ina ilaihi raji'oon. As for the "miracle on the Hudson", it is by the will of Allah, but little do they know.

What an interesting job you have! I look forward to following your blog now that I have found it.

American Muslima Writer said...

How ARE you doing Saf?

I really hope you're able to relax a little more now.
Thata was a scary experience. i think it's likely to stick in your mind more as it was your first experience AND when you see something liek that your body goes into re-act mode and all that adrenaline gets pumping. A lot of it probably has to do with the lack of care that everyone felt about what you did. The guards didn't care (too much), the lady certainly didn't care. Although maybe it would be good of you to tell her how you felt trying to save her and that it affected your life. perhaps it will give her something to think about besides banging her head around.
I kinda know how you feel, when my Son bonked his head really hard it hurt him so bad he wasn't even taking a breath for Sooo long I started thinking oh God this might be IT, what if THIS is his death? I have to do something! And I just gave him a CPR breath and alhamdulilolah he started breathing. Maybe it was heroic or maybe he woulda breathed sooner or later and it was really no big deal but I felt kinda traumatised and really upset and no one around me seemed to care, my husband just gave me one hug and the nurses barily even cared that I did this. For me it was a big deal and changed my life to know I was capable of saving my kid if need be (insha'Allah) but for others it was no big deal.
(ERMmmmm and again when my son almost ran into Traffic and I barilly saved him at the last second, man that boy keeps me on my toes)

So I do hope you're ok. How are you feeling since then? I'm really glad you shared this story. i told you a while back your stroies abotu your work would be powerful to blog about.
Sometimes it's really releaving to let some tears flow about it. Helps your heart calm a bit. I sure cried my eyes out after catching my boy from busy traffic. Masha'Allah the tears have a amazing way to heal.

But again I would definitly talk to that lady you saved and give her a bit of attention that she wants but in a nice way. Who knows what might come from it. Kinda liek that mean lady throwing trash at the Prophet until one day she was ill and didn't and he visited her and she said shahada.
Allahu Alim.

XOXOX I'm thinking of you darling.

Safiyyah said...

As Salaamu Alaikum Everyone:

Jazaka Allahu Khayrn for stopping by and for your kind words. I've been feeling a little better, but the experience is one that I won't ever forget, Alhamdulillah.

It has been difficult to write about my job until now.

Insha Allah I will work on a new post that will answer some of the questions asked here.

Anonymous said...

I never considered the perspective you outline here-- heroes as victims. It makes sense.

Maybe the crew members felt embarrassed by the attention because they did not actually choose to become "heroes," and certainly would rather not have had this experience.

Thank you for relating this event to your own similar experience. I look forward to reading more about your job.