Helping the Helpers
As a licensed psychotherapist, Nikki Gordon immediately understood the level of trauma that COVID-19 would induce. And she knew she had to help.
“When the pandemic hit, the core values of Alverno encouraged me to look at how I could contribute,” says Gordon, a 2015 graduate of Alverno’s Master of Science in Community Psychology program. “I’m providing free therapy services for medical personnel and first responders.”
Her clients include law enforcement personnel, ER nurses and techs, EMTs, fire fighters, respiratory therapists, ICU nurses and even people who aren’t often considered frontline workers, such as veterinarians and daycare workers. She’s also seeing a surge in people experiencing domestic violence.
Her patients all have one thing in common: trauma. And Gordon, who is finishing a second master’s degree, in criminal justice, is deeply familiar with the trauma faced by both first responders and survivors of violence.
Before she began her psychology career, Gordon worked as the organ donation coordinator for the Lions Eye Bank of Wisconsin. She often had to talk with families about organ donation immediately after an accident, or with frontline workers who were on the scene.
“I was often doing immediate crisis management after an accident. I was doing a lot of trauma support over the phone,” she says. “The officer or medical person would break down as they were telling me the details as to what had happened.”
With her undergraduate completion looming in the fall of 2012, Gordon was contemplating her next career move when she heard a radio ad for Alverno’s community psychology program.
“I hadn’t heard of Alverno and I had no clue what a master’s in community psychology would look like, but I was so struck by the tone of the commercial that I submitted my application that night,” she says.
Gordon came to Alverno to become a licensed counselor. Her first class was on trauma therapy, and the trajectory of her career became clear. She interned at The Healing Center and also worked at Aurora’s Sexual Assault Treatment Center, where she provided survivors with emotional support during forensic exams, and law enforcement interview accompaniment.
Gordon began working as a domestic violence/sexual assault counselor at The Women’s Center in Waukesha after finishing her graduate internship, and a few years later was recruited by Jewish Family Services to work at Sojourner Family Peace Center, where she began working closely with the criminal justice system and was on the human trafficking task force. She began to see a side of law enforcement that is often missed.
“I was seeing the impact on our helpers and how incredibly vulnerable and compassionate these front line professionals were,” Gordon explains. “They are encountering lot of emotional trauma, so I started offering services for first responders, medical professionals, etc.”
When she went into private practice last year, she continued working with violence survivors and law enforcement. Gordon is a certified Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapist, which is especially effective when working with the trauma endured by violence survivors and first responders. Trauma causes neurologic changes in the brain because the middle part of brain is online and driving thoughts and feelings during crisis. Initially, the traumatic event gets stored there, but that’s not the part of the brain where memories are processed.
If the memory isn’t processed properly, it can cause negative beliefs that trigger post-traumatic stress, flashbacks and anger issues. EMDR helps the person reprocess the event and store the memory in the right place in the brain — but it works best within 45 to 60 days after a critical incident.
“My clients know that if something happens, they need to see me in the first few weeks. Right now our first responders are in desperate need of these interventions,” Gordon says.
She conducts some appointments using tele-medicine, but many patients prefer in-person sessions. It often isn’t safe for those experiencing domestic violence to talk from home. First responders prefer to separate their work, and the traumatic events that occur, from their home lives.
Fortunately, Gordon is able to meet clients at her newly opened office, using appropriate social distancing and cleaning procedures.
Gordon dreamed of opening a solo practice and was in the process of looking for a quiet office space in February. When COVID-19 hit, she hesitated — and then reached out to her Alverno network. They were unanimously supportive, as were the law enforcement and community agencies she’d worked with in the past.
“My gut told me it was what I had to do,” she says. “I’m optimistic the financial part will work itself out. Right now, helping with the crisis response is the most important thing for me.”