A Walking Disaster

What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience

Jamie Aten

Dr. Jamie Aten, a leading researcher in the psychology of disaster recovery, learns some profound and counterintuitive lessons after he is struck by stage IV colon cancer.

Aten’s journey—recounted here in intimate first-person detail—began in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck his community. After witnessing the devastation wrought by the storm, he refocused his professional attention toward helping people make meaning of their suffering and develop the resilience to rebuild their lives. His work in this area led him to study disaster zones around the globe and to create the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College.
His expertise, however, was little comfort when a fateful visit with his oncologist revealed advanced colon cancer. Thrust suddenly into a battle for his life, with cancer cells and chemotherapy ravaging his body, Dr. Aten found his professional interest taking on new meaning. His ordeal taught him counterintuitive truths about how we can sustain ourselves when burdened with seemingly unbearable suffering. Some of his insights include: to find hope, be cautious of optimism; when you want help the least is when you need it most; and that spiritual surrender is not a passive act.

This last point speaks to the spiritual dimension of Dr. Aten’s story. As he struggled to understand the significance of his suffering, he found himself examining his Christian faith down to its bedrock and learned to experience the redemptive presence of God in his life.
Dr. Aten has a natural exuberance and unquenchable thirst for life that shines through in his writing. Infused with his compassionate voice and humanitarian concern, A Walking Disaster is ultimately an inspirational story about the power of the human spirit to endure trauma with courage.