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MEET A MEMBER: Jennifer Coon, PT IPTA Member Races to Action After Beirut Explosion

Tuesday, September 1, 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Matthew Nicholas
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MEET A MEMBER: Jennifer Coon, PT
IPTA Member Races to Action After Beirut Explosion

The IPTA is proud of members who are working hard towards advancing the physical therapy profession.

“I never knew how much I loved Beirut until it was almost taken away from me.”

IPTA member, Jennifer Coon, PT moved to Beirut, Lebanon in February 2020 with the purpose of using her skills as a physical therapist to work with Syrian refugees.  She had spent the last 9 years working first at the outpatient center for a large trauma center and then at a private practice in the city of Chicago.  In her spare time, she would volunteer with the local refugee community and took many medical trips to the Middle East with her church.  When the opportunity was presented to her to move to the Middle East and combine her physical therapy skills with her passion for working with refugees, it was an opportunity that she knew she could not pass up. 

“I knew this would be a big challenge for me, but I had no idea how big. Three weeks after I moved, the country was completely shut down (including the airport) for the next 3 months due to COVID-19.  My ability to practice was limited and I tried to fight against thinking if I made the wrong choice.  I poured my time into learning Arabic and did some telehealth consults.  As the restrictions slowly lifted and I was able to start doing clinic work and home visits, the country began to experience an economic and political collapse with the currency losing up to 80% of its value, over half the population living under the poverty line, food shortages on the horizon, and protests in the streets.  This was the backdrop that I found myself living in on the infamous night of August 4, 2020 when the third largest non-nuclear explosion in history took the lives of over 200 people, injured thousands, and left hundreds of thousands without homes.” says Coon.

Jennifer was standing in her kitchen about to cook dinner, when she felt the building shake a little. Before she could figure out what was going on, she heard what could only be described as an explosion and was thrown backwards as the building shook more violently.  She immediately thought they were being bombed and looked for cover.

"As nothing seemed sturdy, I did the next safest thing that came to mind and raced down the stairs.  On the street, everyone was looking up at the sky and at the buildings around us trying to figure out what had happened and what would happen next. Lebanon is no stranger to wars or to bombs and the people were all too familiar with this scenario. I raced back up the stairs and quickly packed a bag just in case. The hours that followed were filled with an agonizing mix of waiting for messages from friends that they were safe, and waiting for details as to the extent of the destruction of the city that had become my home.  Mar Mikhael, Gemmayzeh, Achrafieh."

"These weren’t random places – they were the streets that I loved.  They were the neighborhoods that I ran/ate/drank in. But that didn’t even matter at that point.  At that point, all that mattered was thinking about who could possibly survive the blast that had shook my 11 story building 1.7 miles away and had blown out windows farther than that."

After a sleepless night, Jennifer and thousands of others across Beirut stepped into action. Following others to the site of the blast, she went to try and donate blood.

“Doing” was the easy part – not physically of course – glass is sharp, debris is heavy, and all of this is in ridiculous humidity up/down multiple flights of stairs with no AC and breathing in dust/debris and other things best not to think about." says Jennifer. "But thinking, processing, feeling, resting, eating, even praying at first – that was the hard part. That still is the hard part. But in spite of the horrors of destruction that I saw that day and the images I may never forget; I saw something else as well.  I saw hundreds of people of all ages, races, and religions pouring in every day with brooms, buckets, and utility gloves to do the work of an army with machines. I couldn’t keep up with the different WhatsApp groups I knew helping with clean up, donations, food, medical, etc. I saw people withstand tear gas in order to stand and demand justice for the corruption and negligence allegedly behind the blast. I saw a country that refused to be driven to their knees."

As the "disaster stage" winds down, the rebuilding stage is where our profession shines.

In the days to come, Jennifer will continue to work with her organization and partner with others to provide rehabilitation to the many who have suffered injuries, but in a way that is holistic and can hold space for the emotional and mental trauma that so many are currently experiencing.

Jennifer is now caring for people like “Miriam”, a Syrian who fled the war in her country several years ago for relative safety and yet suffered significant trauma to her head when her door fell on her during the explosion and “George”, the concierge who broke his arm in 3 places as he held his children under him so they would be safe.

Jennifer ends with the following message "I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of a multi-disciplinary team to serve these people during some of the hardest times of their lives.  I am also grateful for the friends that I have back home, many in the physical therapy community who support and encourage me from afar."

The IPTF has paid Jennifer's Illinois membership dues for the next 12 months so that she can remain an active member while donating her time and energy to help those in need in Beirut. 



photos provided by Jennifer Coon, PT

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