Arthritis in her knees and a hip forces Judy Murphy to walk with a cane, but it doesn’t stop her from dashing to the site of disasters, sometimes as often as three times in 24 hours. At 62, Judy, a retired schoolteacher who lives with her two dogs in Woodbridge, Va., is driven by a desire to be useful and a Christian faith that encourages her to help others. She is on-call around the clock for the American Red Cross in Prince William County, Virginia, to help those affected by home fires, floods and other catastrophes.
“It’s all about still finding ways to be able to be useful as a volunteer. You can do this at any age,” Judy says. “I like to help people. I like to know that I’m giving help that’s really needed, that I’m serving a useful purpose.”
A few years back when arthritis struck, Judy started bringing two fold-up canvas chairs to disaster sites because she could no longer stand for long periods of time or get up from the curb once she sat down. It worked out well because disaster clients could sit down next to Judy and collect themselves. Other volunteers followed Judy’s lead and started bringing chairs.
Judy is also certified to drive ERVs (Emergency Response Vehicles), which provide water, coffee, tea and snacks to the disaster site, as well as other supplies, including blankets, and “comfort kits” of toiletries. She started having trouble getting in and out of the cargo area of the ERV and bought a short stool to help herself get in and out of the vehicle.
“There are always work-arounds,” Judy says.
Judy is a Disaster Action Team Lead. It is not uncommon for her to be at one disaster and be asked to go directly to another disaster as soon as she can. She’s a late-night person, she says. She may have gone to bed at 3 a.m., unwinding from a demanding day, and get called out again at 4 a.m.
“I have to lie there for about five minutes pulling my thoughts together and convincing myself that I’m really getting out of bed, and then I get out of bed, and then once I brush my teeth and start putting my clothes on, I’m good to go,” she says. “There’s something about the fact that someone is experiencing what may be the worst day of his or her life, someone needs assistance right now, someone is outside their home looking at it in disbelief. That gives me the energy to go.”
When she gets back home she always unwinds in the same comfortable chair, watching television with her “go-to” comfort drink, a McDonald’s caramel frappe. Sometimes she’s so exhausted, she sleeps in the chair until she gets up the next day.
At the scene of disaster, Judy tries to bring calm, kindness and a listening ear. In the worst-case scenario, when people lose family members in a fire, they are often in shock. She asks them if they’d like to sit down and gives them a blanket, even in warm weather, because they can be chilled from shock. She decides what to do next by what feels right. Sometimes she asks if she can give them a hug and, if they say yes, she puts an arm around their shoulders. She tells them she’s sorry and can’t imagine what they’re going through. Then she just sits with them. Sometimes they want to talk; sometimes they don’t. Often, their eyes are glazed over or dart from object to object. Eventually, she tries to get them to focus on the practical – making sure they have lodging for the next few days and money for food or clothes.
“I try to speak to them in a calm manner that conveys the idea that something is under control,” Judy says. “While their life is spinning out of control, there is something that they can latch onto that is under control.”
Judy says sometimes people find it easier to grieve for a pet lost in a fire than for a loved one because their guard is down a little more. They’re not thinking of funerals and all the plans that have to be made. The pet has died and the owner is thinking of what that animal went through, not understanding what was happening. Judy tells pet owners that she has two dogs and has lost a pet, but can’t imagine what it would be like to lose one under these circumstances. She tells them she’s sorry and asks if she can give them a hug.
“And I just let them have a few minutes,” Judy says. “If they want to talk a little bit about the pet, how long they’ve had the pet, I let them talk. That’s all you can do. You listen and try to say things that are sympathetic but sincere, not saccharine, not phony.”
Judy got her start in the Red Cross the summer after ninth grade. Her father, an Army officer, was stationed in Dachau, outside of Munich, Germany, and her mother was a Red Cross volunteer. She suggested that Judy volunteer at the Army hospital in Munich.
“My mom was my inspiration,” Judy says. “I knew that volunteerism was just a part of her.”
Judy told a few of her friends about the volunteer opportunity and they joined her. She volunteered in the pediatric clinic, where she started out pulling patients’ records when they came in for an appointment and getting babies’ height, weight and temperature. Eventually, she learned to take vital signs, such as blood pressure. By the next summer, the family had been re-stationed to Stuttgart, Germany, and Judy volunteered at the Army hospital there. “It was a great experience because I had such a sense of responsibility and it felt really good.”
Judy has continued to work on and off for Red Cross throughout her life. Her family returned to the states when Judy was in high school. In the summer, Judy volunteered with the blood mobile, passing out cookies and juice, broth or hot chocolate to blood donors. She was trained to spot signs that a donor was about to pass out and to call for medical assistance.
Among many volunteer stints, Judy was a receptionist in the Fairfax and Loudoun offices of Red Cross, did community outreach two days a week at Quantico Marine Base, and worked with Restoring Family Links, a Red Cross endeavor to unite families separated by conflict, disaster, migration or other humanitarian crises. She still occasionally does community outreach at Quantico and Ft. Belvoir.
Judy first got involved in disaster relief when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005, not long after she’d retired from her teaching job on disability. Scores of volunteers were training to deploy to the Gulf Coast, but Judy didn’t want to go because she didn’t want to leave her dogs in a kennel that long. She reasoned that with all the volunteers responding to Hurricane Katrina, the Red Cross would need help responding to local disasters. Judy then joined the Disaster Action Team in Loudoun County.
She mostly observed her first time responding to a house fire in Loudoun County. The residents of the house spoke very little English. Judy spoke some Spanish and was able to help translate.
Judy left the Disaster Action Team in Loudoun County after serving for several years and joined the Prince William County team in 2010. Her first call came at around midnight for a single-family home with one man who lived alone. It was winter and bitterly cold. The temperature was in the low 20s. The call lasted two hours.
“I just remember being extremely cold especially my feet but we stood there,” Judy says. “The water from the fire engines had created ice all over the cul-de-sac. We couldn’t get out of there until they came and salted the roads.”
Judy’s unpredictable, demanding life no longer affects her miniature poodle Missy and mixed miniature poodle Andy. They used to get excited when Judy was called out on a disaster in the middle of the night.
“They have learned that I’m going to leave and I’m going to come back,” Judy says. “At first, they wondered what in the world was going on but now it doesn’t even phase them.”
If you’re interested in joining the Red Cross team as a Disaster Action Volunteer, visit https://www.redcross.org/local/washington-dc/volunteer.html.