Trauma Center


For twelve years now my partner and I have been interviewing Salvadorans for this project.  It continues to evolve in order to allow more voices to be heard.   

Staying in touch with our scholarship students during the Covid-19 virus pandemic, we are all stressed.  One student wrote these words via What’s Ap.  “Here the measures are extreme, quarantine is mandatory; if you do not obey you can go to prison after isolating yourself from your family for 30 days. . . .Our country is not prepared for a virus like that so we are waiting, watching from our homes as it progresses here.”

In Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez’s note to pastors and friends on 3/26/20 during this pandemic he reminded his pastors to: “Care of trauma pastors to families and people affected by the environment of concern and fear. In the face of emergency measures dictated by the government, state of siege or emergency regime, maintain the complaint of disrespect, mistreatment and abuse of human rights.

We listen; we learn.  Sometimes we hear recurrent themes and patterns throughout our interviews.  One that has been particularly troubling to me is that of trauma.  Given the twelve years of civil war that many of our storytellers lived through, whether they fought in it or were innocent civilians, it is no wonder that they continue to be tormented by the trauma they experienced.  As we hear the gruesome details of the atrocities they witnessed, of having survived massacres, of being brutally attacked, of seeing their villages bombed and burned, of being displaced, land living through unsuitable refugee camps, and on and on and on, I feel as if I were with each and every one of them. 

War victims are only one demographic experiencing trauma in El Salvador.  We can look at  many others as well.  We hear trauma of separated families, of losing family members and homes from natural disasters, of hiding from gangs they have escaped from, of searching for biological families they were kidnapped from, of trying to start a new life after prison and finding no opportunities available.  Trauma is rampant throughout lives in El Salvador.  It has haunted me for years.

Inevitably one of my questions to these folks is, “Did you receive treatment of any kind to assist you in the aftermath of the trauma you experience(d)?”  The typical answer is “Talking to people like you who are interested helps.”  I am always flabbergasted that this is all — the sum total—of the help they have ever received.  I have spent much time researching “survivors’ guilt,” which is the phenomenon many Salvadorans are experiencing without knowing it is a common outcome of their trauma.  They also don’t know they have PTSD which causes the disturbing night terrors and other symptoms they blame themselves for. 

Often I ask leaders of NGOs why there is no professional counseling available and am never satisfied with the answers I hear.  In a nutshell, while they agree the need is there, it boils down to reminding me that El Salvador is a developing country with far more pressing issues to solve than healing the human psyche.  I leave the conversations feeling unsatisfied and wanting to open regional trauma centers staffed by dozens of psychologists and psychiatrists with expertise and experience in treating trauma victims.  (But that is my outsider’s pie-in-the-sky notion.)

Lo and behold, on our last trip to the country, we stumbled upon exactly that!  I was overjoyed to say the least.  Unfortunately, it happened to be a day no staff was available to speak with and no clients were present.  However, I got the name of one of its administrators whom we happen to know personally and was able to discover some information about the trauma center a few days later.  (I should preface this by saying that he happened to be co-leading an international youth exchange group of 22 youth from Germany/El Salvador at this time, so his time for sharing information with us was very limited and his attention was just a bit frazzled!)

This trauma center is run by the Lutheran Church and is located next to the synod’s offices in downtown San Salvador.  The project began four years ago and opened two years ago.  Linda Muth, who works closely with the Lutheran Church, helps provide background information on Helmut Koehler for whom the center is dedicated.  Both Pastor Koehler and his wife, Waltraud Koehler, lived in Munich, Germany.  They were missionaries for many years serving throughout El Salvador in various congregations.  Pastor Koehler was especially gifted in his work with children.  The couple returned to Germany when health issues demanded.  Pastor Koehler has since passed away.  His wife, Waltraud, continues to remain connected to her Salvadoran friends through social media.   Recognizing their love and commitment to the church in El Salvador, as well as its training of the counselors for this work is the reason the center was dedicated to Pastor Helmut and Waltraud.

The leader of the Diaconate of Munich, Dietmar Frey, presents Waltraud Koehler the dedication of the trauma center

Pastor Wilma Rodriquez, a psychologist and Lutheran pastor, is the director.  Traumatologists in Munich, Germany are providing the training for the program.  The model they are using in El Salvador is to train sixteen pastors (1 in each microregion of the country) to identify and then treat trauma.  All therapy is individual therapy, not group therapy.

Individual treatment rooms off the main atrium

 The target focus groups are war victims, those who have been unable to live in peace after the Peace Accords of 1992, and those experiencing other trauma including pastors, women living with professional men who experience psychological abuse, domestic abuse, those who are members of  second generation abuse whose parents’ abuse transferred to them, persons living in dysfunctional families, etc.  They are beginning to see some trends and patterns already.

The purpose is to help these people be able to free up their fears in order to live more productive lives.  Right now they are treating between 50-60 clients, which works out to be three to four per day.

Perhaps other trauma centers exist in other areas of the country that I am unaware of.  I was just delighted that my own church is seeing the need and spearheading this project in downtown San Salvador and already planning to make it a country-wide project.   I wish them much success in treating an over-looked group of people for far too long.  Perhaps this will serve as a model for other treatment centers to take root in the country, as well.

Perhaps a few years down the road when I ask my usual question to a storyteller during an interview, “Have you received help for your trauma?” I will get a more encouraging response of, “Why yes, the pastors at the trauma center at the Lutheran Church have been very helpful in offering me some ways to cope with my issues.”

UPDATE: In a June, 2020 report from the Salvadoran synod we discovered that the Central American governments are requesting assistance from therapists in the trauma center for virtual help for first responders during the COVID crisis as well as the tropical storms that recently ravaged the area. This tells me the Lutheran Trauma Center is becoming known and recognized for their skills.


    Afflicted with Hope / is one of many outreach ministries at
    Saint Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA)
    30 West Main Street, PO Box 266
    New Kingstown, PA 17072

    Tax deductible donations for support of this work in El Salvador may be sent to the above address.