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More in After the storm

The role of culture | The role of religion | The environment | Political fallout | The face of Katrina | First person

How did the Harris School of Nursing respond to hurricane relief efforts?

By Susan Weeks
Professor of Nursing
(As told to Allison F. Speer '91)

On Wednesday evening, two days after Katrina hit, the local chapter of the American Red Cross asked me to develop a plan to contact patients coming to Fort Worth area hospitals from the New Orleans area. I was to collect information for the Red Cross’ national disaster welfare inquiry database. The next day our faculty meeting became a crisis planning and training session for about 25 nursing faculty and nearly 50 nursing students. They formed teams to coordinate the information collection at the local hospitals.

The first faculty/student teams went to area hospitals that evening equipped with a Red Cross-approved list of data-gathering questions, but more importantly equipped with their professional skills and a heart-felt desire to assist. By Friday morning the first match had been made: a patient was reconnected with her family. This continued over the coming days and weeks.

Between Thursday and Monday, our teams interviewed about 300 patients at Tarrant County hospitals. Most of those interviewed had left the New Orleans area after the flooding occurred. Many had waded through water for hours. We saw two mothers who both had Caesarean-sections in field hospitals just two days before arriving in Fort Worth, and they had to come here by bus.

As we interviewed, a parallel event was also unfolding. The Red Cross asked me to teach a Disaster Health Services course for nurses and other health care professionals. Lea Montgomery, another TCU nursing professor, helped me train 90 nurses on Saturday so they could begin immediately working in our shelters. We felt it was important to continue to train nurses, so we adapted the training course into a three hour long self-study module with a video. The new module sped up the training process, and over the next few weeks nearly 300 nurses were prepared for disaster health work.

These nurses worked more than 700 eight-hour shifts in the various shelters that were set up in Tarrant County. These same nurses made more than 1,000 follow-up phone calls and about 50 home visits to evacuees with specific health issues after they left the shelters.
I have great confidence in our faculty and students. In some cases, clinical groups (10 students and one teacher) were greeting clients as soon as they got off the buses from New Orleans and completing physical and mental health assessments.

I was also assisted by several faculty members who helped with case management of families with particularly challenging situations. The dean of our college, Rhonda Keen-Payne, helped a family whose seriously ill child overheated and died during the evacuation. Rhonda met periodically with the family throughout their entire ordeal, and even helped them make funeral and burial arrangements. It was heart warming to see our faculty and students respond in such personal and professional ways.

I believe that experiences such as disasters change the way we teach nursing. These situations are prime, current, crisis intervention-based opportunities to learn. We have all learned many lessons that will enrich the Red Cross’ crisis management. We also have many more faculty members who are Red-Cross trained, and will be able to involve more students with local disasters in the future.

This experience has also increased our academic offerings here. We are looking at options to offer the Red Cross Disaster Health Services course each semester for graduating seniors.

I must add this: I was in my office early one day and glanced at a bookmark that has been on my desk for several years. The TCU Mission statement is printed on this bookmark. I thought, ‘What an example of the TCU mission.’ That’s exactly what our faculty and students have been doing over the past month and a half. They’ve faced some extremely challenging situations and have responded as ethical leaders and responsible citizens.

Comment at tcumagazine@tcu.edu.