A Community of Heart Profile: Isabelle Fernandez
There is a dynamic woman living in Milan and her name is Carmen Isabel Fernandez Reveles. We know her as Isabel Fernandez. Isabel -a long with her able team of Italian colleagues- is responsible for the integration of EMDR into the Italian landscape of psychotherapeutic practice.
Isabel has been a Psychologist for quite awhile but she is not sure how she became interested in her field. Perhaps, it was a result of being an exchange student in Saxton, Pennsylvania where she received her High School Diploma. Through the American Field Service Program, she applied and received a scholarship to come to the United States. She said that, “This was one of the greatest experiences. I felt very welcome there.” As she was integrated into the family with whom she lived and the Saxton community, she learned about the customs and behavior of the American people. It opened her eyes to a different culture and Isabel became curious about the diversity of people.
She returned to her home in Rocha, Uruguay and went on to the university. Pursuing her interest in other cultures, Isabel fell in love with an Italian young man who had been traveling throughout South America. After she received her degree from the University of Montevideo, she returned with him to his native Italy. They settled down in Milan and they have been living there for the past 20 years. Isabel says that she has become such a native of Italy that she can hardly speak Spanish anymore!
Although she had completed her Psychology degree in Uruguay, the rules of the psychological community mandated that to be recognized in Italy, she must have an Italian education. She received a second degree in Italy at the University of Padua in Clinical Psychology. As in most European academic settings, Isabel was schooled in the Psychoanalytic tradition. However, she was also interested in Cognitive Behavioral work and worked on this specialty at the Cognitive-Behavioral Center in Milan, at the same time that she finished her degree at the University of Padua.
Her interest in different ways of understanding human behavior was complemented by her excitement about Research. After her graduate work was completed, she became a Consultant at the Psychiatric Department of Niguarda Hospital and worked on the rehabilitation of psychotic patients by using Cognitive-Behavioral interventions with their families. While at Niguarda Hospital, she conducted a Research Project with heart transplant clients and the support of their families.
In 1990, Isabel diversified her interest in Psychology even further to include the field of Organization and Development. She worked for Prudential Insurance Company of America and was in charge of their recruiting and selection. She found it exhilarating to start a project from the very beginning. She selected and trained the management team. She worked there for 8 years, as she continued her private practice as a clinician. In November 1998, she began working for a Consultant Company in Milan on management training, development and counseling. She continues this work today.
It was in 1997, while attending the European Cognitive-Behavioral Congress in Vienna, Isabel heard about EMDR from Marcie Smith. At the time, she said that, “I had an illumination.” She took Part 1 in Boston in March 1998 and later took Part 2 in Denver in August of that year. In September, she was asked to be a facilitator in Italy and received her facilitator training. By the following year, she arranged for the first EMDR training for 40 people in Milan. After that, the news about EMDR was out and several months later they were ready for a second training. Currently, 600 people have been trained in Italy. Those receiving this training are awarded 18 of the 20 credits that they need a year to satisfy the criteria for continuing education; this is a testimony to the quality of the program and the value of EMDR to the Italian Mental Health Department.
Isabel’s enthusiasm had been sparked because of how EMDR has furthered her understanding of people. She talked about EMDR in this way:
“EMDR has given me a way of really understanding the whole history of the client’s life and how it developed. It is a good diagnostic tool and helpful in doing the assessment. Of course, working with EMDR is much more motivating because you can see results, the client’s understand by themselves what is going on, they feel empowered and they understand themselves. I use if for Psychotherapy, not just for PTSD, and my clients really get big and meaningful insights working with it. It is fascinating. All the feedback is very rich from the point of view of their process. You can see how they grow, manage, master and understand themselves.
Something that is very nice when working with people is how they relate to their children after they work on their problems. How they relate to their children and the specific behaviors they should avoid seems to be the next step. They have it so naturally! You don’t see it in other therapies so deeply. They see what is necessary. They understand a child’s mind and what their needs are. It is a beautiful way to work for the future generations by developing a good attachment with their own children.”
In a short amount of time, Isabel has helped move EMDR into the limelight in the treatment of Italians throughout the country. As a member of the Faculty at the School of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and as a member of the Italian Association for Behavioral Therapy (affiliated with the European and US Associations), she is a Professor in this specialization that includes an introduction to EMDR theory and research.
Not only is EMDR considered to be a standard part of education of trauma, with Roger Solomon, as Senior trainer and mentor, Isabel and her Italian colleagues have been using EMDR, Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM), and Stress Management to people in the Army, Police, Firemen, Civil Defense, Public Services and those working on the Railroad. They have trained clinicians who work in the public and private areas, in hospitals and as court appointed therapists. This is possible because of the strong association that she has helped to forge and the great enthusiasm of the Italian clinicians despite their different approaches. EMDR has become “the common language” of them all. For Isabel:
“It has been a very good experience. It has opened up a world in Psychotherapy. How could I work before? I was very effective before but this was a whole world I would never have paid attention to before.”
Over the past few years, Italy has suffered many tragedies. In October 2001, there was a tragic air crash in Milan on the Pirelli building. Although the team did not intervene at first, recently, the Command Post of the Firemen has asked Isabel to build a psychological support system with their Association. This will include debriefing and psychological support for Emergency Workers.
After the Molise earthquake of October 31, 2002, EMDR was the elected method by the Italian Public Service. The earthquake affected 200 towns and 5000 people of all ages. At the time of the earthquake, there was a schoolhouse in the center of the activity, where 60 children were at their lessons. The Elementary School fell down and killed half of the children, leaving the other half under the rubble from 2-20 hours. The children had to deal with this terrifying event as well as lying next to the dead bodies of their friends for a long period of time. The government allowed for a great deal of psychological support.
The EMDR team was elected to work with 30 of the most exposed children. All of them had Acute PTSD. The team went to Southern Italy and stayed there at 2 different times. They will go back in June for a follow-up. The team spent one month there. During that time, the children worked on their experience. However, what they found is that “when you work with people with mass catastrophes, the most problems come from the adult reactions and how they are responding to the catastrophe.” Therefore, the children end up reacting to both the catastrophe and the reaction of the adults around them. Members of the EMDR Association came to assist and they coordinated with the government. They were lucky to have the assistance of our colleague, Philip Dutton, from the United Kingdom. He came to support his Italian colleagues and share his expertise from working with children and trauma from his experience in Dunblane, Scotland. This work will be presented at the EMDR European Association’s Conference this year in May 2003 in Rome and followed up with an article.
Currently, Isabel is the Chairman of the Italian Association of Emergency Psychology (Societa Italiana Psicologia Emergenza) and coordinates the Emergency Psychology task force for the Regional Psychological Association (part of the Italian National Psychological Association). Also, she is the Director of the Psychotraumatology Research Center and President of the Italian Association of EMDR. She is responsible for the editing of the EMDR Protocols and Procedures Manual (Italian version) that was published in 2000. She has written the following in Italian: “EMDR. A cura;” “Stress, trauma e Psicoterapia (2001);” and “Psicologia dell’Emergenza (2002).”
When asked for any reflections that she had for the EMDR community, Isabel responded in the following way concerning her role as a spokesperson for the Italian EMDR community:
“All of this has been very hard because of all of the criticism. Many people are criticizing things without knowing anything. Taking a position is a very challenging thing. It is very hard to find a way of expressing the good results of EMDR to someone who does not want to understand. It has been an opportunity to grow. In that sense, I have had to learn to tolerate all of that frustration. At a certain place, everything comes around. The people who are criticizing EMDR end up sending their brothers for EMDR therapy! It was counter productive.
It has been fun, also. At the same time that people tried to humiliate me, or EMDR, there were many people who really responded very well. If I talk to a group of 50 participants, two or three will be nasty to me, ten to fifteen will be very enthusiastic, and many more will want to take the training or congratulate me. People will stay and listen and reflect. At the end, every night comes together. The message I have to the EMDR community is the following: There are always a small percentage of people who will be nasty. Although I had been a clinician and professional in the community for 15-20 years and presented in many Congresses, I have never had someone react to me the way they are reacting to me about EMDR. It has been a different world because it is so revolutionary. They go crazy. I had never seen anything like it.
In the end, everything has become an advantage. They make me a favor. But, it has been hard. I have worked with EMDR and overcome them and go ahead. And, I don’t stop.”
Isabel is a devoted mother and wife as well. She is appreciative of her husband and daughter who are her great support. She acknowledges that she has been able to do all that she does because of them. They come with her as she goes to conferences and other professional activities. One of the benefits that she has experienced is that her 11-year-old daughter has become a part of her international community and learned the importance of diversity that Isabel values so much.
Isabel has demonstrated an interest in people, diversity, and the human suffering of individuals, groups and the larger population. She has had the spirit to forge ahead in the face of adversity or challenge and made a huge difference in the lives of all around her and in the extended environment of her city, country and world. How lucky we are to have this multi-talented woman as part of our international EMDR community.