We Are Only Human

On the path to self discovery

Marathon Strength

After helping her community recover, a psychiatrist gets back in the race.

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The Boston Marathon has always been a big part of my life. I've run it 10 times now, and will run again this year, raising money for the Samaritans. It's a focused physical endurance event, and a spiritual journey for me.

Last year's devastation—the bombings that stole three lives and affected hundreds more—impressed an unprecedented weight upon the city. The bombings were personal in some way for everyone, in Boston and far beyond. Memories of 9/11 were evoked by another senseless mass tragedy that seems all too familiar in the headlines. First came the panic and bewilderment, as law enforcement scrambled for answers. Then the reality sunk in: Injuries. A manhunt. Alleged terrorists. These two young men were residents of Cambridge, not part of al-Qaeda, as we've become accustomed to hearing about when we hear the word terrorism.

And just when I thought the events of the marathon couldn't hit any closer to home, they suddenly did, when it was revealed that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had graduated from Cambridge Rindge & Latin High School (CRLS), where I've worked for 20 years as an attending child psychiatrist, directing school mental health programs and providing safety assessments.

The bombings were one of the most difficult situations for me personally, and one of the most challenging professionally. While CRLS suddenly garnered attention for harboring these alleged terrorists, it was crucial that the community—and the school—mobilize even as we were still reeling from the pain and confusion of this double hit.

We often don't get to hear about the moment to moment decisions made to contain a school's anxiety, but at a recent school mental health conference sponsored by Harvard Medical School, which I co-lead, I had a chance to share the stage with my colleagues, CRLS Principal Damon Smith, Officer Nicole Pacheco, and Director of Safety and Security John Silva, to reflect publicly about the aftermath of the bombings at CRLS, and discuss the plan to deal with the tragedy and to move the school forward.

I have worked as a child psychiatrist at the CRLS school-based health center for over 20 years, and this time it was my role to back up the social workers and staff. But that became a difficult task because they, too, were unsettled and disturbed by the tragic events: Teachers and school officials are often asked to use our personal strength in times of crisis, but the marathon bombings presented us with extraordinary circumstances that unquestionably tested our strength.

Take, for instance, Officer Pacheco, not only a CRLS graduate, a CRLS resource officer and a police officer for the City of Cambridge, but a first responder on the morning after fellow officer Sean Collier was assassinated on duty at MIT. She was assigned to patrol the street where Dzhokhar lived, and she spoke at the conference about putting her fears aside to protect our community, even if that meant putting her own life in danger:

When it comes to crisis situations in schools, Principal Smith explained how there's a premium put on making sure kids have access to resources, support, and services—while staff members are sometimes secondary in terms of lines of support. "I knew if we were going to help our students transition, we had to make sure the adults were able, ready, and supported and felt that they could deal with the issues that kids were likely to express or experience," he said.

Principal Smith organized all CRLS staff for an emergency staff meeting the weekend following the bombings, coordinating efforts with local officials and organizations and CRLS' administrative response team. It was a somber meeting, but everyone was encouraged to share his or her feelings and concerns. Some expressed mixed emotions over wearing their CRLS hoodie out of the house; others voiced concern about backlash against Muslims in the school. On Monday morning, assemblies were held for each grade level and students were given the opportunity to talk, ask questions, and reflect.

Looking back now, a year later, it was a hazy, hectic experience, but a testament to the humanity and resilience of our community. It was inspiring to see so many resources come together for one cause.

Because of this, running the Boston Marathon this year has obviously taken on new meaning. The spring awakening and the brightness of the sun always is a surprise after the long chilly winter runs. It's a privilege to participate again, this time in remembrance of the victims of the attack, and in honor of the heroes, in small and quiet ways, who stepped up when they were needed, and showed the endurance of the human spirit to provide comfort even when we are challenged.

Nancy Rappaport is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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