How human touch can comfort a wounded warrior

“The power of touch has deep roots in the human experience,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute


During a special debriefing at the ILEETA training conference this year, Sergeant Joseph Ferrera of the Southfield (MI) PD showed surveillance video of an elderly man who walked into the lobby of that city’s police station on a quiet Sunday afternoon and started shooting a .380-cal. pistol. 

Dramatic action dominates the 10-minute clip, as officers rush from adjacent offices and kill the suspect. But an important lesson is conveyed by a series of small interactions that pass almost unnoticed at the edge of the video frames. 

In the brief shootout before the gunman falls, Sgt. Matt Collins is wounded in the left shoulder. With EMS en route, he’s seated in a lobby chair, “in pain and scared.” First aid is administered by a SWAT operator, Ofcr. Nick Cazan, who tells him: “Don’t worry. I’ve seen a lot worse than this before.” 

As Collins is tended to and awaits transport, these fleeting physical exchanges take place: Collins brushes Cazan’s hair with his hand...shortly after, Sgt. Gary Lask, who had terminated the suspect’s threat, gently tousles Collins’ hair as he walks past...moments later, Cazan puts his arm around Collins’ shoulders...Collins reaches up and grips Cazan’s hand for a few seconds.... 

None of these contacts was medically important, yet as Ferrera pointed out in his presentation, they seemed therapeutic nonetheless. Afterward, Collins told him that touching and being touched by fellow officers “just made me feel better. It had a very calming effect and reassured me that everything was going to be okay. I knew they weren’t going to leave me.” 

Interestingly, Ferrera told Force Science News, even Cazan and Lask, who weren’t wounded, recall feeling reassured and comforted by the physical contact with their injured colleague. “The human touch was remembered by all of them as being very positive in those tense and uncertain circumstances,” Ferrera says. 

The Power of Touch
“The power of touch has deep roots in the human experience,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute. “Anthropologically, touching is a form of communication that predates speech. In infancy, most of us associate being touched by another person with comfort, love, and reassurance. Researchers have established that babies who are held a lot thrive better than those left alone in bassinettes. 

“In a crisis, touching in universal ‘safe’ zones —  the lower leg, hands, arms, shoulders, hair — is a physiological means of tapping into the psychology of compassion, concern, and nurturing. Between male officers, it’s a gesture that can be very masculine yet very sensitive. It can be a much more profound means of communication than words. 

“The fact that people who have been there are telling us that touch is beneficial is a message we should be listening to.” 

The stronger the emotional bond is between the toucher and the wounded warrior, the more impact the physical contact is likely to have, Lewinski says. “Being members of the same team, as compared to being perfect strangers, can make a difference. The response may also depend on the area touched, the amount of pressure applied, the physical closeness of the parties, and the severity of injury and degree of consciousness involved. 

“Everyone is different, so you need to monitor the recipient for cues that your touching is acceptable and beneficial. And, of course, in aiding a wounded colleague, medical considerations — stopping bleeding, sustaining breathing — are always the primary concern.” 

The Right Words
What you say to a wounded officer still matters — and it should reinforce the message of reassurance you’re attempting to deliver through touch. 

In a training program called Verbal Trauma Control that he presents throughout North America, Brian Willis, president of Winning Mind Training and a graduate of the Force Science certification course, recommends this approach: 

“If you know the wounded officer, start with calling him or her by name and then say who you are. It’s important not to assume that they know who you are at that critical moment. Next, a few simple phrases can help to establish a positive mindset: 

•    ‘The worst is over....’
•    ‘You are going to be okay...’
•    ‘More help is on the way....’

“If possible, get the injured officer involved in something, even if it’s just holding a piece of equipment for you, so he feels actively engaged in his survival. And with training, you can learn how to implant suggestions in his mind that will help him reduce bleeding and control other physiological functions. 

“It’s important to remain calm and project confidence. It is also important to understand that the injured officer can hear what is being said even if he or she is unconscious.” 

The effectiveness of your words, as well as your nonverbal contact, will likely be enhanced, Lewinski says, if you can “get down on the level of the injured officer and look him or her in the eyes.” 

Good Recovery
The Southfield shootout turned out well for Sgt. Collins and the other officers involved, Ferrera says. Collins recovered from his injury and is back on the job, although the offender’s round remains embedded in his shoulder. After he was shot, Collins was able to get off six rounds from his Glock 31, hitting the assailant three times. 

Positioned closer to the offender, Sgt. Lask, a 15-year SWAT veteran who assisted Ferrera in the ILEETA debriefing, fired nine rounds in two seconds and delivered nine solid hits. 

The 64-year-old gunman may have been seeking suicide by cop, Ferrera says. He had throat cancer and could no longer speak or take food or water by mouth.

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