How A Trauma Specialist Helped Tsunami Victims with Parachutes

Alexandre Duarte had just left Thailand when the tsunami devastated the Asian country in December 2005. Just two days earlier he had been in Bangkok, where he had spent a period of time, made friends, and developed a fondness for the Thai capital. He decided to return, in the wake of the disaster, to try to help.   “I knew those people.  I wanted to help,” he said.

Ale called his guru, Peter Levine, the creator of Somatic Experiencing, a therapeutic approach focused on re-balancing victims of physical trauma.  Levine was coordinating a group of 10 people, who would go to Thailand to give aid to the survivors. So, Alexandre joined them.

“We had a few meetings in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There were only highly qualified people -­‐ from the Red Cross, or who had worked at the Pentagon on September 11th.  And everyone with degrees in psychology, medicine, and nursing.  In the area of physical education, it was only me,” he recalls.

Shortly after, they embarked.  In addition to clothes, Alexandre brought in his luggage a multi-­colored parachute, made by his father-­‐in-­‐law especially for the occasion. This would be his contribution.

With a degree in physical education from Mogi das Cuzes, a city one hour from São Paulo, Alexandre Duarte, or Ale as he is known, dedicated a large part of his life to sports.  He competed in mountain biking, was a rowing coach at Espéria (a traditional club in São Paulo) and was invited to play soccer with Juventus and Santo André, teams from the São Paulo leagues.  He turned them down.   “They paid nothing. And I also didn’t know if I played that well.”

He went on to gives classes at secondary school, Porto Seguro, in the capital itself. Because he lived with some pain due to excessive use of effort, a professor suggested that he seek out Rolfing, a therapeutic method that re-establishes the alignment of the spine manipulating the musculature.  It was the ace in the hole.    “I realized I wanted to go into the area of health.” Alexandre said.

He quit giving classes and opened a clinic.  In 1998, at the age of 32 years, he met Peter Levine, and became his student of Somatic Experiencing.  In the following three years, he specialized in this technique; that consists of leading the body back to its natural functioning when it becomes immobilized by a trauma. On his internet page, there is a more exact explanation, “Trauma is not an event, but a response from the nervous system to an event. The profound stress that is lived can leave an individual frozen in a state of anxiety, panic or lethargy. We can deactivate the stress.”

Alexandre summarizes the technique with an analogy: “It is as if there were an earthquake in a river, and the fish were thrown out of the water.  What I do is give the fishes a shove to get them back into the river.  I don’t teach them to swim.”

In 2005, after the tsunami, this analogy rang true, on a large scale.  On arrival back to Thailand, he was taken to an improvisational shelter, inside of a school, where there were dozens of orphaned children.   “They had just lost their parents. They were aggressive or apathetic, with headaches, stomach aches, and nightmares.”

I proposed a collective exercise. I gathered them into a circle, around the parachute, and asked each of them to hold on to an edge. Then, I instructed them to move the fabric like a wave.   I thought: “I have to give them a small dose of poison, like in homeopathy.”  Then they began to view the movement as a giant wave, like a tsunami, as a game. Some of them laughed, others cried, but in the end, they felt relief. And the imprint/ registry of the trauma changed to playful.

He gives a more exact explanation:   “Their nervous systems were frozen. They were not able to fight or to flee.”    His method began to be recognized as something new within Levine’s method. In the same year, he was called to work with the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, in the United States. In 2008, he helped those who escaped the earthquake in Szechuan, China. Earlier that year, he was in Japan to work with those traumatized by the earthquake and tsunami that reached Fukushima. In Brazil, he helped the victims of floods in Brusque and Blumenai, in Santa Catarina, and in the explosion of Shopping Osasco Plaza in São Paulo.

December of 2009, after five years living in the United States, Alexandre returned to live in Brazil.  Today, at 46, he lives in Rio de Janeiro.   I wanted a city with the beach. I thought about Hong Kong and San Francisco, where I was used to seeing clients.  But as I wanted to work with athletes preparing for the Olympics, I chose to come here to Rio.”

He says that his method can also be applied in the world of sports.   “The Brazilian team stopped functioning when Holland scored against us in the last World Cup.  The bodies of the athletes entered into disorganization.  If you are frozen inside, no physical force can resolve it.”

He criticizes:   “When you get close to the competition, the guys only raise and lower the fire. There is no one taking care of the seasoning.”

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