In Celebration: Sandra Wilson
On May 21, 2015, one of the stars in my sky departed. At 68, Sandra Anne Marie Wilson had lived an extraordinary life based on kindness, caring, altruism, curiosity and true grit. She –with her husband, Robert (Bob) Tinker, were true pioneers in bringing EMDR therapy to children, refugees, survivors of man-made and natural disasters, law enforcement and phantom limb sufferers. Her dissertation was the first randomly controlled study that validated Francine Shapiro’s first study on EMDR therapy. She was a dear friend, wife, mother, grandmother and great grandmother who brought her love and support to all who knew her. This celebration of Sandra’s life is a combination of an “In the Spotlight” profile written in 2000 and an interview with her husband, Robert Tinker. It highlights the contributions she continued to make and reminiscences of some of her colleagues who treasured and appreciated her.
When I think of Sandra Wilson, I think of a kaleidoscope of dynamic shapes and colors coinciding with the different facets of her life: caring friend, wife, mother, grandmother, philanthropist, psychologist, researcher, humanitarian, wilderness retreat leader, fund-raiser and champion of the underdog. There is no area of the human heart that she has not touched and the number of human hearts she has touched is countless.
I was introduced to Sandra soon after she completed her doctoral dissertation in partial fulfillment of the requirements for her Ph.D. at The Union Institute. This was the first controlled study of EMDR therapy with 80 traumatized adults and was later published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (JCCP) as a Special Feature in December 1995, “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) treatment for psychologically traumatized individuals,” with her co-authors Lee Becker and Robert Tinker. For her important work, she received “The Good Froggy” Research Award from the EMDR Institute in 1995. The 15-month follow-up with 84% participant response was published in JCCP with the same co-authors in 1997. For this research, Sandra won “The EMDR Research Excellence Award” in 1996. These two studies demonstrated the positive and long-term effects of EMDR therapy with patients and became the launch site for the slow steady accumulation of positive research on EMDR. What has followed is a cascade of wonderful projects, humanitarian efforts and challenging research that has spanned the nineties and flourished during the new millennium.
I liked her immediately. She was full of life, feisty, irreverent, funny and bright. Also, she was focused and driven to do what she could to fund her research and to help demonstrate the efficacy of EMDR therapy to the world at large and the psychotherapeutic world in particular. At the time, we called ourselves “GOBS” (it was the time of acronyms!) or “Great Old Broads of EMDR”! Sandra was busy selling bright pink and orange T-shirts that read “p<. 0001, snake oil not” and “I am woman. I am strong. I am invincible. I am tired” (many of us can relate to that). She was a woman on a mission.
Sandra was born in Detroit, Michigan and was the eldest of 10 children. In 1985, she received her Bachelor’s of Art Degree Magna Cum Laude in Psychology and Sociology from Central Michigan University. In 1987, she completed her Master of Arts Degree in Clinical Psychology and Child Development, also Magna Cum Laude, from the same university in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. She moved to Colorado in 1988 in search of the mountains and to keep her son company while he was attending the University of Colorado!
A long the way, Sandra has had a variety of other occupations: lead vocalist in a band in the ‘60’s, Pre-School Educator, Crisis Center Co-Director, Parent Education Program Director, General Contractor, Community College Instructor teaching house construction, Head of numerous humanitarian projects, Recreation Director for an exclusive family resort and Psychological Private Practice Clinician.
She has had her share of her own trauma and tragedy through the years; one of the saddest being the loss of two grandchildren in infancy, Spencer Baumgardner and Curtis Penney. In true Sandra fashion of turning tragedy into good works, she and her husband, Robert Tinker founded the Spencer Curtis Foundation in 1994 as a loving memorial to her grandchildren. The purpose of this non-profit corporation is to provide psychological and humanitarian programs for children worldwide and to conduct scientific studies of EMDR therapy and Trauma. Sandra, Bob and Lee Becker spearhead the projects with the help of many volunteers and/or paid therapists to create a special working community for the various projects. On March 3, 2003, another tragedy occurred. The heartache of losing three more of her grandchildren. The loss of Jay, Sophia and Sierra Nicholls, was amplified exponentially by finding out that her daughter and son-in-law, methamphetamine addicts and dealers, had set the fire that killed her grandchildren, and then having to sit through the trial that convicted them to three consecutive life sentences for their crimes. Sandra wept every night for seven years.
In 1995, Sandra was appointed Project Director along with Joe Westerheid and Karin Kleiner for the Oklahoma City Bombing Relief Project sponsored by EMDR-HAP and The Spencer Curtis Foundation. They supervised the EMDR Free Clinic that was staffed by 186 EMDR facilitators who volunteered their services to treat 250 victims of the Oklahoma Federal Building bombing. They also ran gratis trainings so that 300 therapists in the area could learn EMDR therapy to use with trauma survivors. This project led to the creation of the EMDR
Humanitarian Assistance Program (EMDR-HAP) which continues its work running humanitarian projects world wide to treat survivors and train therapists. For her work in Oklahoma City, Sandra was awarded “The Cornelius Sabin Award” by the El Paso County Psychological Society.
In 1996, The Spencer Curtis Foundation sponsored “The EMDR with Children Research Project.” One hundred and twenty children and their parents were interviewed with approximately half completing the study. However, due to a failure of funding commitments, the Tinker’s are endeavoring to find the funds to complete the analysis and write up the study for publication. Unfortunately, this is often the plight of researchers. Sandra and Bob, responded to the massacre of school children in Dunblane, Scotland and trained ten therapists to work with the surviving children. By 1997, the firearms act was passed in the United Kingdom and Scotland not allowing handguns.
In June 1996, “The Phantom Limb Pain Research with EMDR” began. The idea for this project came after Francine Shapiro spoke at the 1995 EMDRIA Conference about Linda van der Laan’s work during the “HAP Bogotá Columbia Project” with a child in Columbia who had remission of phantom limb pain after an EMDR treatment. Sandra and Bob were fascinated by this result and with great curiosity began to delve into this area of research. The pilot study began with 7 patients and was funded by The Spencer Curtis Foundation and the Tinkers in the United States and Germany. At this time, 50 patients have received EMDR therapy and report approximately a 70% reduction of pain. Part of the data include MEG scans for 3 patients pre and post their EMDR intervention. One of the things learned with the very difficult cases is that using the tac/audioscan on adjacent areas affected in the brain makes the difference between being effective or not. For instance, in the central motor cortex, the lip is close to the thumb representation so effective treatment occurred by putting the sensors on the lips, thereby interfering with the phantom limp pain that occurs in the arm. “The Phantom Limb Pain Research” is in a funding status at this time and work will be continued once a grant or large donation is secured.
When Sandra is involved with these research projects, she brings the heart she demonstrates in the rest of her life into whatever study she is working on. Not only does she have a fierce support for her therapists, she has a great love and delight in the kinds of process and experience reported by the patients who are part of the project. She told me one story about a patient who had lost an arm from Cancer and after she was treated with EMDR therapy was no longer experiencing any phantom limb pain. This woman had regained her joie de vivre and went out two-stepping with her boyfriend. They were dancing and stepping with such abandon that, at one point, her partner was left holding her prosthesis while her stump was exposed. While the dancers around her had stopped in surprise, she and her partner were laughing so hard they could hardly catch their breaths. I could see Sandra’s eyes twinkling with sheer delight at this woman’s triumph in the face of her disability.
“The EMDR with Police Officers as a Stress Reduction and PTSD Program” for the City of Colorado Springs Police Department began in 1997. This project was under the auspices of the National Institute of Justice Program to look at effective ways to help law enforcement officers and their families recover from the stress of such intense work. The Spencer Curtis Foundation received an $85,000 grant to assess 62 officers and their partners or spouses on the main areas of police stress. A six-month follow-up was conducted and the article was published in 2001 in the International Journal of Stress Management (vol. 8, no. 3). They had found that in comparison with standard stress management conditions, those in the EMDR group scored lower on PTSD symptoms and subjective distress, job stress and anger.
They had higher marital satisfaction and the results were maintained in a six-month follow-up.
In 1998, Sandra was awarded “The Ron Martinez Award” by the EMDR Institute for her multiple contributions to EMDR therapy, in trainings, research, leadership and humanitarian projects. After the Columbine High Scool massacre in April, 1999, Sandra and Bob did a training for the psychotherapists working with the surving students to teach them EMDR. One of the major things that they learned was that therapists who take place in these trainings need to get help for themselves. In 1999, to this end, Sandra took eight therapists for a weekend in the mountains at Chalk Creek Cabins, Colorado so each had a chance to treat their vicarious traumatization from their volunteering. Sandra and Bob provided the treatment at their three rustic cabins they had bought for this purpose.
During 1999, the much awaited “Through the Eyes of a Child: EMDR with Children” was published. Bob and Sandra included the wealth of their collective experience with EMDR and working with children in the text. It is an important book to include in any library as the literature on EMDR therapy grows.
September 1999 marked the beginning of the Malteser Refugee Camp in Hemer, Germany Project. More than 100 children and adults benefited from the six-month program. A controlled study of 40 children began in December using a modified version of the EMDR protocol that included the butterfly hug. The butterfly hug was the result of work that Lucina Artigas, Ignacio Jarero, Judy Boel, and Judy Albert did with children who were victims of the floods subsequent to Hurricane Paulina, in Mexico. This project was undertaken to validate the effectiveness of EMDR so that governments would accept this treatment in the face of other disasters. At the moment, there are two Albanian psychiatrists who are hoping to raise money to set up a clinic to do EMDR in Kosovo. The plan was to have EMDR HAP trained local therapists and volunteer EMDR therapists do clinical supervision over the next two years to support the trainings.
Sandra also ventured into integrating her love for the wilderness into her passion for psychotherapy. As she has plunged into the work of helping others face disasters, she has been intimately in contact with the fall-out of such events. She said to me, “We are putting us in situations that change us. I will never be the same. I have a different world picture.” Dealing with her own vicarious traumatization and Auto-Immune Disorder, and looking to her mountains for comfort, she continued creating wilderness retreats to assist healers in healing themselves and to help people wounded from life and work to rejuvenate and/or resuscitate their bodies, minds and spirits.
Beginning in 2001, Sandra and Bob were the official Child Trainers in the United Kingdom and Europe under the auspices of the Child and Adolescent section of the EMDR Europe Association. They trained trainers and set up a model in which child trainings would be held in the native language, respecting a country’s customs, laws and perofessional regulations. Child Trainers in each country would be responsible to train other trainers. Their certification program was comprehensive and child trainers had to submit four video tapes with children in the following age ranges: 2-3, 4-6, 7-8 and 9-11 years old. They systematized their rating scale to adhere to the Standard EMDR Protocl and used a simple scoring system that is still being used. In 2007, they passed the responsibility to Michel Silvestre and Joanne Morris-Smith who have recently published their book, “EMDR for the Next Generation.” There are now certified child trainers in Denmark, Germany, France, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and the United Kingdom and Scotland.
Sandra and Bob decided to create an 8-DVD set (with a bonus DVD showing a 20 minute television program on their work with children police officers; and the famous “Mary” tape). Sandra arranged for everything and found the videographer and arranged to have it videoed. Although the training was completed in 2011, it was not until 2013 that the video was released to good feedback.
In October 2008, there was a huge earthquake in Szechuan province where 59,000 people were killed and 4.8 million were left homeless. They went to Shanghai where they trained eight psychiatrists to work with the traumatized children.
In October 2013, Sandra accompanied Bob to Europe where they presented at the 2nd Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health (ACAMH) Conference on EMDR. Bob gave the keynote and Sandra assisted him with the Master Class as well as another in Paris. In keeping with her love of landscapes and the outdoors, Sandra insisted that they visit Giverny, the home of Claude Monet and one of his creative inspirations, opening Bob’s eyes once again.
Unless you thought that Sandra was totally concentrated on her work, you need to know that she was an avid wife, a mother of five, a stepmother of two, a grandmother of eight and a great grandmother of eight. She learned the art of making every moment count and she enjoyed each one. She liked to read and enjoyed all types of music. At the time of the 2000 interview, she was reading Eleanor Roosevelt’s autobiography, “Ghost of the Balkans” and “The Firm”. When she was outside, she included gardening, hiking, walking, biking, fishing, white water rafting, horseback riding in her activities.
Memories of Sandra
“Sandra inspired, challenged and loved—always passionately. From my very first encounter with her, as a brand new Facilitator-in-training, I experienced her essence as a teacher and human being. She trusted me to reprocess with her a very painful and intimate memory. Her faith in the power of EMDR therapy and in me inspired the profound desire to be worthy of that trust.
Two years later, recognizing both my eagerness and my anxiety, Sandra encouraged me to join her and Bob at the Kosovo Refugee Camp in Hemer, Germany in their field research project using the Butterfly Hug with traumatized children. I could see how naturally and spontaneously, Sandra brought out the best in those around her. Her smile, her laugh, her enthusiasm, her passion and her faith in their abilities and the power of EMDR were transformational. joined the ranks of those forever changed by their relationship with Sandra.
Sandra’s life was irrevocably altered by the tragic death of three of her grand children having already experienced the loss of two others. Though reeling from that loss, she found a way to bring healing and joy to the entire community through the creation of a Butterfly Garden in Colorado Springs dedicated to those children and for children of the future--once again healing pain and bringing joy. She inspired others to do their best to make meaning out of a meaningless tragedy.
Her relationship with Bob Tinker was a joy to watch—throughout their journey together, they shared an incredible bond. They were joined through their mutual love of learning, EMDR, family and the joy of life. Through the hardest of times, theirs was a bond that stayed constant and tender. Though they knew pain together, they managed to not inflict it on each other. What a legacy for their children, their grandchildren and the rest of the world.
She will be missed in innumerable ways. My personal journey was forever altered through our relationship and I know I am but one amongst many. Safe Passage, dear friend.” -Zona Scheiner
“My first experience of what an exceptional person Sandra was is in Oklahoma City in 1995, following the OKC bombing. She was fearless and nothing was impossible for her. Need a car, call up a dealership, need office space, ask clinicians. Sandra knew how to ask in a way that made people want to help. Most of all, I remember her humanity and kindness during the process. San had a great sense of humor and was a wonderful storyteller. We would debrief after a long day of working with clients and then go have a beer and tell stories and laugh.
In Hemer, Germany working in a refugee camp with Kosovo Albanian refugees, San had the Kosovo women teaching us how to make this delicious filo dough pastry filled with cheese, all of us were laughing and communicating with hand gestures. Driving from Hemer to Dusseldorf, in a packed car, getting lost, and driving around in circles, laughing. Even in stressful situations, San could find the humor and humanity.
Sandra had a wonderful, exceptional smile and her eyes twinkled when she laughed. - Karen Kleiner
“Well just go do it” When I think of San this is a phrase that easily comes to mind. Sandra was all about “just doing it” and getting it done. It didn’t matter what the task was or what the apparent or even hidden obstacles were, for a project that was important or a cause that was right and just, her attitude was, “let’s just do it”. She had incredible energy, vision and passion and ability to bring people together and create amazing experiences and meaningful projects. When you got involved with a Wilson project, you knew you were in for a ride and an incredible adventure. You had to suspend a bit of disbelief and judgment about just how she was going to pull it off, because for her, logistics were issues that will be worked out in the future, what was important was the mission and the vision.
I first met San, during my Part 1 EMDR training. San was my Red Badges’ Blue Badge. She had just published her seminal dissertation study in the Journal of Clinical and Consulting Psychology, replicating Dr. Shapiro’s first EMDR study. I was just drawn to her and that started a friendship that lasted from 1996 until her all too premature and untimely death in 2015.
She was all about fun, passion, magic, make believe, heart, goodness of soul, loyalty but most important LOVE. She suffered more than anyone should ever have to endure, yet even as her heart was so devastated, the wounds did not prevent her from healing and striving to create beauty where ever she went, and whomever she touched.
I will leave it to others to document all of her wondrous projects and accomplishments, I will just say that the world is a much better place because she walked it, and I feel so incredibly fortunate to have walked beside her for a short while. My heart aches for our loss yet it is stronger and has a greater capacity for love because of her presence. I will carry her with me forever. I love you Dr. San.” – Bennet Wolper
“When I think of Sandra, the first thing that comes to mind, is how much I loved her spirit. Never had I known spirit like hers! She believed she could accomplish anything, and she lived her life as if she could. Nothing stopped her, and she made her accomplishments look easy. The second thing that comes to mind, is how much she adored me (for some strange, unknown reasons), and how much I adored her (I had good reasons). It made everything else go easily.
What comes to mind next, was her generosity and thoughtfulness about others. She would give gifts to people who waited on her at the grocery store, the mailman, her friends, her grandchildren. Her children lived in dread of how much she was going to over-do the grandchild’s next birthday. She loved the over-the-top guesture; it was part of who she was. If I mentioned that I might want a shirt, she would get me two. She exchanged gifts with the pharmacy tech, and they became friends. Service people who had to work on holidays would get pizzas.
She could find excitement in anything: if I introduced her to art or music she was unfamiliar with, she immediately could find the beauty in it. In short, she made life pure joy, even if she was suffering at times. As she became weaker in the last few years, we would sit outside in the courtyard, have a glass of wine, reminisce, and talk about how the last 20+ years of our lives were the best we ever had. We talked about what a great team we had been, in terms of how she could do things I couldn’t, and vice-versa. And, as life ebbed out of her, we continued to reminisce, about what a great run it had been. She died in my arms as I talked with her, and she knew that she was dying surrounded by love. It couldn’t have been better.”
It is best to end with Sandra’s words:
“I am living my life, before it is over.
I am where I want to be.
Doing what I want to do
With whom I want to do it.
The three biggies.
A nice place to be.”
- Robert Tinker
How lucky we were to have Sandra Wilson in our community.