He was a wreck, this stranger sitting alone in front of the nurses' station at the hospital.
It might have been Tom Walsh's first day as a trauma volunteer, but life experience told him that this man was the man he'd been called to help.
This man's wife had gone to bed in the hotel room in Irvine, Calif., after seeing their son off to college. In the morning, he couldn't wake her up. She'd died of a stroke in her sleep.
Walsh recognized the look on the stranger's face, the helpless feeling of being unable to save the woman you love. Years before, Walsh's own wife, Barb, had suffered a small stroke and a traumatic brain injury from a resulting fall. Even though Barb eventually recovered, the experience had plunged them into the often scary maze that is the world of hospitals. That's what had first given him the desire to volunteer to help others.
"We had a year of being in the hospital quite a bit. It was a nasty time," Walsh, 61, recalls, his even voice perfect for delivering understatement. "I saw all these people in waiting rooms, waiting for whatever bad news they were going to get. I could just see that they were just out of it — 'What's going on, what's happening?' Because of that, I kept thinking, what could I do that would make sense?"
Then, Walsh's tennis partner was killed along with his daughter in an auto accident. The help given to his spouse and surviving children by volunteers with the Trauma Intervention Program (TIP) helped the family function again and provided them information to navigate a terrible time.
That's when Walsh knew he'd found the right outlet to help.
And now there he was — retired owner of an auto wrecking company, real estate investor, golf fanatic, sometime pool shark, tennis player, father of two boys — ready to be an "emotional paramedic" for a stranger.
Usually TIP volunteers go out on their first call with a program veteran, but Walsh had arrived ahead of the veteran and jumped right in.
TIP volunteers undergo 100 hours of volunteer training to teach them how to be a source of comfort, stability and information in the midst of the chaotic, painful time after sudden death or grave injury to someone's loved one.
Those hard times can also come after witnessing something violent and traumatic, whether crime, accident or act of nature. Fire departments, hospitals, coroner's offices and police call TIP, a national nonprofit organization, to provide victims the emotional support that emergency personnel have neither the time nor training to administer. The program seeks to prevent what mental health experts call "secondary injury," lasting emotional effects that can result from experiencing trauma.
No sooner had Walsh wrapped up that first call than he was needed on another, this time for a Latino family who'd just lost a grandmother. He doesn't speak Spanish. They didn't speak much English. It didn't matter. He was able to offer what they needed by just being there, holding hands, offering Kleenex.
"We're all pretty much the same," he said. "The fears, the joy, the sadness, we feel it the same."
That was five years ago. Walsh has become a stalwart of the Orange County, Calif., chapter of TIP, not only volunteering every month on calls but also serving as a dispatcher and mentor for other volunteers.
"Everybody thinks this kind of work is a good idea, but few people can do it over the long haul," notes Wayne Fortin, founder of TIP.
Fortin has come to know Walsh well as a veteran of the program. "You have to have a balance between compassion and courage," Fortin said. "And I'm thinking of Tom as I say this.
"You have to have an unwavering focus on wanting to help others in crisis. If you are in it for any reason other than that, it won't work. There's no money, no accolades. It's getting into your car in the middle of the night, wading into these devastations, where a lot of times you can't fix it. You can't bring back a dead child; you can't save anyone. You have to be able to tolerate helplessness and believe that just your presence can make a difference.
"Tom's also got a great sense of humor. He takes his work seriously but never himself."
The hard part of the job? Walsh says it's learning how to "shake off" the pain and suffering of the calls, as so many are about death.
His happy, stable home life with Barb and his sons gives him a lot to appreciate. And he leans on the TIP strategies he's learned: "It teaches you to say the right thing versus the wrong thing when people are in their worst moments."
What is always the right thing to say?
Easy, Walsh replies. "I'm here for you."
Become a volunteer
To learn more about Trauma Intervention Programs, or to become a volunteer in your area, visit tipnational.org. If you'd like to know more about helpful reactions to traumatic events, visit whentragedystrikes.org