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Disaster-response Network Calls on New Grads


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By Debra Wood, RN, contributor

New nurses, who are interested in helping out during and after a disaster, can join the new RN Response Network. Motivated by traditional disaster-response organizations’ failures to meet Hurricane Katrina victims’ healthcare needs, the National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC) along with the California Nurses Association (CNA) formed the RN Response Network.

The new network is appealing to nurses—both experiencd and new—across the country to volunteer. As volunteer nurses, you will join a coordinated effort to quickly place nurses in areas of greatest assistance after a hurricane, earthquake or other unexpected event, according to Bonnie Martin, RN, NP, a CNA/NNOC board member, who volunteered in Louisiana after Katrina devastated the area. "In Louisiana, I saw a tremendous need and how ill-equipped we are as a country to deal with it."

She added, "When disaster strikes, nurses want to assist, to put their skills to work. Disaster response agencies, do not want them to just show up on the scene, even when their talents are in demand. CNA sought to facilitate a way for nurses to participate.

After Katrina, “there was a vacuum," confirmed CNA's Liz Jacobs, RN, BSN. "No agency was placing RNs directly in hospitals or clinics."

RN Response Network will provide support and coordination for volunteer nurses. CNA will raise funds to cover airfare, safe lodging and meals. It will work directly with state agencies to resolve licensure issues.

Calling All Nurses

CNA is inviting all nurses to join the network, not just members, and more than 4,000 registered nurses have signed up since the launch in 2006. They will receive training from CNA in disaster response and the psychosocial and socioeconomic issues related to such events.

It’s a combination of nursing hands-on and putting things in the global context,” Jacobs said. “For example, in New Orleans, the socioeconomic and racial disparities made for a very complex and sensitive situation. Nurses need to be prepared for what they are going into.”

CNA received calls from nurses wanting to volunteer after the tsunami hit southern Asia in 2004. The organization sent nurses, materials and medicines to Sir Lanka, where they set up five clinics in the most seriously damaged areas. Again after Katrina, the phone began ringing. More than 1,000 nurses asked CNA to help place them in the disaster zone.

"I tried to volunteer with at least half a dozen relief agencies, without success,” said Diane Dengate, RN, of Detroit, in a written statement. “It was a matter of days after contacting CNA/NNOC that I arrived in my assigned hospital in Baton Rouge. Ten minutes after I arrived, I had a nursing license in Louisiana, changed into scrubs, and went to work.”

Helping Out in Hurricane Zones

More than 300 CNA-affiliated nurses volunteered in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas after 2005’s hurricanes. The nurses worked in 25 hospitals, clinics, and mobile units. When the patient census at Earl K. Long Memorial Hospital in Baton Rouge, doubled, CNA staffed half the RNs needed with volunteers.

“I’m proud of my organization. We got nurses on the ground so quickly, and the nurses were out there actually providing nursing care to these folks, when very few people were doing it,” Martin said.

Californians Martin and Shirley Usher, RN, were stunned at the conditions and lack preparation to provide needed post-storm health care. American Red Cross nurses were able to render only first aid, not provide the wound care or peritoneal dialysis some victims required, Martin said.

Usher also was startled by the basic lack of health access faced by some of the victims before the storm. She called her time volunteering along the Gulf Coast a life-changing experience.

Life-Changing Experiences for New Grads

Now, nearly two years after Katrina, CNA continues to receive requests from the Gulf Coast for nurse volunteers. A nurse-led volunteer clinic in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward requested a nurse practitioner, which CNA has sent.

“We see we have a unique role to play, which no one else seems to be playing, which is placing RNs directly into whatever setting they are needed, from established hospitals to makeshift clinics, to practice at the full extent of our scope of practice,” Jacobs said, adding that new-graduate nurses are at the perfect place in their new career to begin to participate in disaster-relief efforts.

“As RNs we have an obligation legally and ethically to be a patient’s advocate on every level, from the bedside into our communities,” she concluded.

“This is a great way to start a lifetime of service not just at your job with your patients but in a broader, global way helping other communities that are being overrun. And it’s also about RNs helping RNs,” she said. “It’s a good model and a good way to start of your career understanding that we’re social advocates, as well as patient advocates.”

For more information or to join the Registered Nurse Response Network, visit the California Nurses Association Web site.

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