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Joplin counselor carries on after disaster, helps others cope

By Chris Welch, CNN
Stephen McCullough, a crisis counselor in Joplin, Missouri, shows where a car flew into the side of the building where he lived.
Stephen McCullough, a crisis counselor in Joplin, Missouri, shows where a car flew into the side of the building where he lived.
  • Stephen McCullough and his partner lost just about everything in their Joplin apartment
  • "I still think I'm a little in shock. I've had some tearful times," he said
  • But he returned to work the day after the city's devastating tornado
  • He says it can be tough to listen to others' troubles, but doing so takes his mind off his own

Did you experience the tornado in Joplin, Missouri? Send your photos, videos or stories. And tune in at 8 ET Saturday night for CNN Presents' "A Twister's Fury: In the Path of Destruction." CNN shows you how large parts of Joplin, Missouri, were reduced to rubble in minutes, yet hope remains with amazing stories of survival.

(CNN) -- Stephen McCullough and his partner, Brandon Hembree, lost just about everything in their second-story Joplin apartment, but they're not dwelling on that -- they're just glad to be alive.

"I thought we were going to collapse and end up on the first floor," McCullough said, recounting the few minutes the two of them spent huddled in the corner of their bathroom.

"I still think I'm a little in shock. I've had some tearful times."

It's hard to even fathom how someone could return to work the day after a tornado like this, but particularly for someone with a job like McCullough's: He works as a crisis counselor, helping people cope with disasters.

Tragedy and miracles in Joplin

"[Sometimes it's] a little difficult hearing other stories," McCullough admitted. "But it just feels normal to help other people, and it kind of helps me not focus on everything [at home]."

"But you just go through it, try to breathe and focus on what you can do for them," he said. "You kind of have to compartmentalize things, you know? This [here at home] is different than what I'm having to do at work."

McCullough works at Ozark Center, the area's largest behavioral health care provider, where Debbie Fitzgerald supervises crisis intervention services. She said now that the initial shock is starting to subside, more people are seeking professional help for their mental well-being.

"It's been the toughest four or five days of my entire career," Fitzgerald said, adding that this Wednesday, they saw four times the normal customer volume. "Really, all anyone wants is a happy life, and right now, I don't think there are very many in Joplin."

"Most of them are searching for a loved one or have lost everything."

Difficulty sleeping, an inability to focus or concentrate, and a lack of (or increase) in appetite are all signs that it may be time to meet with a counselor.

"The effects emotionally on even the rescue workers and those still searching are just so overwhelming for everyone, even those of us trying to help them cope," Fitzgerald said.

Case in point: McCullough said that even he wanted the tables turned on him and asked colleagues for a debriefing session of his own.

"It's helpful. It kind of helps me refocus and get back in the game."

Ozark Center's toll-free hotline is 800-247-0661. The center prefers that customers call before visiting, but walk-ins are welcome. The building where the counselors typically work was destroyed in the tornado, so Ozark Center is operating its crisis prevention facility in Freeman Hospital's third-floor patient education room. Counseling services are free.

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