Photo Credit: United Hatzalah
Lucy and Batya meeting a Red Cross EMT in Surfside, Florida

Batya Jaffe is one of six Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit (PCRU) members from United Hatzalah Israel currently active in Surfside, Florida. Batya is an animal-assisted therapist and together with her dog, Lucy, a specially trained King Charles Cavalier, she is assisting families whose loved ones are missing or deceased as a result of the building collapse last Thursday on Collins Avenue in South Miami Beach. The dog & human pair, together with their five other team members, are also assisting displaced families, first responders, and community members in coping with the tragedy.

Throughout Monday, the second day of United Hatzalah’s mission in the area, something unique began to happen as Lucy and her handler Batya became local celebrities to the point that people began feeling excited to meet the doggie, pet her, or give her a scratch behind the ears.

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“The day began normally, with breakfast at the homes of local community members who have been looking out for us ever since we arrived,” Batya recounted what had turned out to be a surprising day. “The community has been terrific. They gave us a place to stay, food to eat, and are taking care of all of our needs so that we can do our work and help those who need it, without wasting any time worrying about basic logistics. This is not some simple thing, and we look at them as full partners in the work that we are doing,” she elaborated.

Police officers petting Lucy. / United Hatzalah

Batya and Lucy made their way in the rain to the Grand Hotel where the families of those missing in the collapse are gathered to hear news about their loved ones and share stories and questions and receive help and services from community organizations.

“Everywhere I went, I was stopped by media outlets asking me to do an interview and to take a picture of Lucy. This was a bit strange for me because there has been no shortage of therapy dogs in and around the hotels where the families are staying. But for some reason, Lucy has been attracting a lot of attention,” Batya said.

The attention paid off later in the day when first responders at the site of the collapsed building recognized Lucy from the news and came over to take a short break, say hello, and replenish their energy so that they could continue working.

Lucy and Batya at the community center. / United Hatzalah

“At first I thought to myself that doing interviews was a waste of time, and I was a bit frustrated by it, but as the day went on I realized how therapeutic it was for the families and first responders who we came here to know that we are around and that we traveled a long distance to help them. It gave them a sense of worth and a sense that people really care about them, and that knowledge has comforted them in a significant manner as well. I can’t even count the number of displaced families, or those waiting to hear the news, who came up to me and were shocked that ‘Lucy from television’ was coming to say hello to them. It lifted their spirits in a big way. It made them feel important and that is a step on the road to building up their resiliency, which is part of our goal here.”

After stopping at the Grand Beach Hotel and meeting and working with several families who were staying there, Batya, Lucy, and two other members of the PCRU went to the community center where they met with Joseph Zevuloni, President and CEO of Zevuloni and Associates who has taken on the role of feeding all the displaced families, and the families of missing persons, as well as the hundreds of volunteers involved in relief efforts.

Lucy, Batya, abd Dovie Maisel meet with Governor Ron DeSantis and his wife Casey. / United Hatzalah

“While we were visiting the center and assisting those gathered, Governor Ron DeSantis arrived to speak to the volunteers and thank them for their efforts on behalf of the families. I was honored to be able to meet him, and I think Lucy was as well. She was so excited she couldn’t stop moving around,” Batya related. “His wife Casey was incredibly nice and complimented us on our work and especially complimented our work with Lucy.”

Batya and Lucy joined two other Psychotrauma team members Raphael Poch and Jennifer Maltz who were heading to the Marriott Hotel where some of the displaced families are staying. “We met with several families, almost all of whom were surprised and overjoyed to see Lucy,” Batya recalled.

A firefighter petting Lucy / United Hatzalah

“The Red Cross had set up a team there to care for the families and the members of their team were so excited to see Lucy. A few of them told me that meeting her and being able to interact with her was just what they needed to lift their spirits. One of them even gave me his card and told me that if I needed any help, I should call him directly. I was in awe of how easily Lucy was able to get distraught families and hard-crusted volunteers and first responders to open up immediately and begin sharing their experiences, which is exactly the purpose that a therapy dog serves in these instances,” Batya explained.

After finishing speaking to everyone at the Marriott, Batya and the others then returned to the Grand Beach Hotel to help work with the families there, many of whom they recognized from the previous day’s work. “Once they saw Lucy and me, many of the families rushed over to us and burst out into tears. I, having heard their stories yesterday, empathized with them and cried some myself,” said Batya. “How can these families go on, not knowing whether or not their family member is alive? But little by little, they are adjusting, and that is its own tragedy as well. Of course, there are instances of backsliding where the terrible pain and emptiness hit them hard once again. It is in these moments that Lucy is at her best. She is trained to sense when someone is in distress and she walks up to them and often sits in front of them, or rubs against them encouraging them to pet her.”

A displaced family interacting with Lucy at the community center. / United Hatzalah

The two ladies returned to the community center where they met with children who were waiting to hear whether or not their father was alive or dead. “The children immediately switched focus from their tragedies to playing with Lucy, which is exactly the reaction we want because this is what children are supposed to do. They are supposed to be playing,” Batya said. “The children fed Lucy carrots, one of her favorite snacks, and gave her water. This was meaningful to me and I teared up a bit.”

Batya, Lucy, and the rest of the team wanted to head out once again but were held up by the rain. “This was one of the first breaks we’ve had since we landed in Miami on Sunday morning. We were heading to the site of the collapse, but couldn’t make it due to the rain and increased security,” Batya recounted. “Later on, we headed to the site of the collapse, where we met with first responders. There are simply no words to describe the overwhelmingly positive reactions we received due to Lucy’s presence,” Batya said.

Volunteers at the community center pictured with Lucy and Batya./ United Hatzalah

“We were standing at the site of immense destruction. Here was a building that until just a few days ago was teeming with life, and now it is simply dead. It is a destroyed building that looks gray and lifeless. There were numerous service personnel moving blocks and pieces of the building off of the pile of rubble with such incredible care that it is difficult to put into words,” Batya recalled.

“One of the Firefighters told me while he was petting Lucy, that all of the people involved in the search had been instructed to proceed with utmost care if and when they find a personal item belonging to one of the people missing or deceased. They are searching for clues of who might still be alive. Other firefighters and EMS personnel spoke to me about their feelings and how they are handling the rescue mission. They told me how all their friends are sending messages asking about their wellbeing and there is no good answer to give. There is no answer at all that could describe the emotional roller-coaster that they are currently feeling,” Batya said.

A firefighter coming from the scene stops to pet Lucy. / United Hatzalah

This firefighter proved to be the first in a line of first responders whose day was made brighter by Lucy. The second was a man from Zaka. “I met a man from the Zaka organization who had just come from digging on the pile of rubble in an attempt to find survivors. He looked like he was about to faint. He was pale, exhausted, barely walking, and covered in dirt. While he was heading for one of the lounge chairs set up for first responders, he saw Lucy and stopped in his tracks. He came over to her, got on his knees, pet Lucy, and gave one of the biggest smiles I had ever seen. While he was petting her, he told me that over his entire career, he had never seen a rescue this complicated. He then thanked me for bringing Lucy, headed to the lawn chair, and crashed.”

Batya and the crew moved on to a group of police officers to see how they were doing. When one officer saw Lucy she exclaimed: “That’s Lucy from television. I’m so happy you came, I didn’t think I was going to be able to meet you.”

Another firefighter who had also just finished his shift removing rubble from the collapse site approached the group and asked to pet Lucy. After a long time petting her he looked up at Batya and said, “Thank you. I already feel better. Thank you.”

“This was the most touching moment for me,” Batya said. “This was the point where I was able to see just how much of an effect we have made here in just two days. I was able to see how Lucy can help everyone express their humanity, no matter what they were going through. She was able to get them to open up and begin talking to us. This allowed us to initiate treatment, even if it was for a short while. I am very hopeful that tomorrow will be as successful as today was, and that we will help more people who need us here.”

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David writes news at JewishPress.com.