By Race Blackwell and Katelyn Roudebush
TV news correspondent Sheila MacVicar was on the plains surrounding the volcano Nevado Del Ruiz near Bogota, Colombia just after it erupted in 1985. The ice caps on the volcano melted and flooded the town below. Ash fell from the sky like snow that stuck to her hair and clothes and had a strong lingering smell. MacVicar watched as firefighters attempted to rescue a young girl who had climbed a tree to escape rising flood water. The girl was stuck in the death grip of her aunt who drowned. Firefighters used a chainsaw to try to free her, but they didn’t succeed. This was the reoccurring nightmare MacVicar had over and over as she dealt with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from covering natural disasters, war and other stories of human suffering.
“Whenever I was in a difficult situation again, for example, later in the Balkans, that was the dream I would have,” she said. “It became a recurring dream. It was horrifying. It remains disturbing to me even now.”
MacVicar reported for CBC, ABC, CBS and CNN for more than three decades.
“I thought it would be really cool to be a war correspondent,” MacVicar said. “I imagined I’d be wearing a trench coat and hanging around places like Vienna and Geneva.”
But her career became far more involved than covering peace talks. As the Cold War ended, new conflicts arose and MacVicar wound up reporting on conflicts in Kuwait, West Africa and Iraq. She says the genocide in Rwanda pushed her over the top.
“People were dying. There were bodies everywhere,” MacVicar said. “At night, when we turned off our generators, all you could hear were the people wailing.”
MacVicar spoke to HSU students in the War Reporting class by Skype. She talked at length about her PTSD– the nightmares, her hypersensitivity to sound, hair triggers of anger, and the occasional times when something smells like the stench of the volcanic ash. She said back in the 80s and 90s, news organizations didn’t realize the psychological effects of covering dramatic stories.
“After one disaster, I went onto the next,” she said. “Nobody suggested I need to take a break. There was no recognition of the impact of these situations on me or my crew.”
In January 2004, MacVicar was reporting from Iraq for CNN. She set up a story with state department envoys who were going to teach the benefits of democracy to local Iraqis. But the day before the shoot, MacVicar gave the assignment to her CNN colleague Michael Holmes so she could work on another piece. While driving in their car, Holmes and his crew came under attack. Al Qaeda gunmen jumped on top of their car and shot into the sunroof killing the driver Yasser Khatab and translator Duraid Issa Mohammed. Cameraman Scotty McWhinnie was shot in the head but survived.
“I sent those men there,” MacVicar said. “I’ve spent a lot of hours in therapy talking about that. I feel extremely responsible for what happened to them.”
MacVicar regrets that moment but not her career. She knows her work has made a difference.
“Psychological health issues are still difficult,” MacVicar said. “But there is greater awareness at some of the major news organizations now.”
MacVicar says she has lost dozens of colleagues in conflicts. She encourages journalists who suffer from PTSD to seek help from the Dart Center in New York, which specifically helps journalists who cover trauma.