Days after the Freeman High School shooting, Barb Wharton sat in a circle with about 15 teachers who had locked down their classrooms that day to keep the gunman out.
Wharton, 67, wears many hats: minister, chaplain, nurse, counselor. Talking to the teachers that day, she was working as a critical incident stress management responder. Her broad and ever-expanding skill set made her the right person to guide the teachers on a path of mental recovery.
They were “totally overwhelmed,” Wharton said. “It was understandably a very difficult time.”
Wharton coached the teachers on how to talk about the shooting, and how people’s bodies respond to traumatic accidents, like not sleeping or changes in eating habits.
“It’s part of the body managing emotions,” she said.
Helping Freeman High School teachers is one of many crisis situations in which Wharton has answered the call.
Technically retired, for the past year she has volunteered with the Red Cross and spends much of her time in disaster areas in the U.S., including in Hawaii after the Kilauea volcano eruption in May and North Carolina following a hurricane and floods in September. Locally, she’s helped flood victims in Republic and fire victims in Kettle Falls.
The number of people she’s helped tallies into the thousands.
In a shelter in Hawaii after a lava flow displaced thousands of residents, Wharton remembers spotting a man sitting on the end of his cot, staring blankly for long periods of time.
“He had pretty serious PTSD,” she said. “I sat down and talked, established a connection. I got him to see how he could help other residents.”
The man began helping move supplies and food around. His mood changed, and “he just blossomed,” she said. “It made him start making his life meaningful again.”
It’s these times that Wharton calls “ aha moments” – motivation for her desire to help people.
“I love it when people get aha moments,” she said. “They’re at a road block that they can pass to be able to help themselves again.”
Wharton plans on traveling to California in January to help people who are still crowded into shelters following displacement by this summer’s wildfires.
“Can you imagine?” she said, shifting in her seat, her mind already ranging to the work ahead. “This long after the fire? People still living in cots?”
Of all the hats she wears, being a nurse in disaster areas allows a certain type of victim to open up to her – victims who aren’t specifically seeking help with their mental health.
“There are some people who go to mental health professionals. There are some who go to chaplains,” she said. “As a nurse, I get the ones who don’t go to either and they come to me for a Band-Aid. I start chatting with them, and I’ve made a bridge,” she said.
Wharton grew up in Southern Idaho and at age 15 began volunteering for a local hospital as a candy striper, wearing the pink-and-white-striped uniform.
“I was there so much that they asked if I wanted to get paid,” Wharton said. “So I put on a white uniform and got paid.”
She can’t pinpoint how or why she wanted to help the public, but nothing else interested her.
“I like helping people,” she said. “I’m naturally drawn to folks who need a hand.”
Growing up, she wanted to be a fireman, a police officer, a nurse or a teacher, but “no women were firemen or police officers back then,” she said.
After high school, she enrolled at the University of Oregon School of Nursing in Portland, then enlisted in the U.S. Army and got married shortly after. Stationed in El Paso, Texas, and Washington, D.C., Wharton was well-traveled in her line of work at a young age, but the traveling would only increase with time.
She and her husband started having kids, and they moved back to the Inland Northwest, where Wharton began working at local hospitals. In 1985, she earned her master’s degree in counseling from Whitworth University and became an ordained minister around that time.
“I wanted to be a counselor, but I didn’t want to be a counselor under the state,” she said.
She didn’t like some of the rules with the government’s counseling policies, so she became a counselor for her church and preached on the side.
But that wasn’t enough for her.
She became the chaplain at the Sheriff’s Department and would help first responders with their mental health after critical stress issues. She also now teaches the occasional class on the subject in Seattle, Montana and Spokane.
Wharton spent much of her time as a nurse in intensive care units in hospitals in Idaho and Eastern Washington. At Horizon Hospice in Spokane, she developed a palliative-care program for people who fell between categories of living independently at home and being in full hospice care.
“It’s that little group who needs more oversight, who need someone to visit,” she said. About 200 people now use that program at any given time.
Wharton also helped develop the first computer system at Providence Holy Family and Providence Sacred Heart hospitals in the early 2000s. Her job was to determine what data would be displayed on the screens, such as vital signs.
Her willingness to improve patient care gets her noticed. In disaster areas, she starts at a base-line position. But her skills lead to field promotions and soon she is put in a leadership position, said her husband, Palmer Wharton.
“When she sees the need to improve, she takes care of it and then they put her in charge,” he said.
Part of Wharton’s uniform is a blue mesh vest. It’s patched with an American Red Cross badge and about 20 buttons from areas she’s helped or from other volunteers she’s worked with. Clinging to the vest is a hand small sanitizer bottle, one of the pieces of the “nursey stuff” that she carries, including a thermometer, blood pressure cuff, gloves, Band-Aids and notebooks during the crisis scenarios.
But those material objects are nothing compared to her experience, her training and her thoughtfulness.
“The biggest honor is to walk with someone though difficulty,” she said. “Even just being there with them makes a difference.”
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