Monday, October 27, 2008

Nurses vs. Katrina

If living in a hurricane-prone area has taught public health anything since the walloping of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it’s that emergency preparedness really works, especially if you put a public health nurse in charge.

“We’ve learned a lot, we’ve drilled a lot and we’ve put some best practices in place,” said Doris Brown, executive director of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals’ Office of Public Health. Among her many hats, she heads emergency preparedness efforts and said Hurricanes Katrina and Rita offered invaluable lessons, which she shared during an Annual Meeting session on “Disaster Nursing: Public Health Nurses Meet Katrina.”

Nurses on the ground after Katrina and Rita deserve all of our thanks. They stitched up patients by flashlight, turned hospital parking garages into makeshift MASH units and held the hands of the terminally ill during their last hours. As the flood waters rose outside one hospital, nurses carried the bedridden down as many as 12 flights of stairs, loaded them onto small powerboats, ferried them across to a parking garage and then carried them to the roof so a helicopter could evacuate those critically ill patients to safety. Talk about doing the best you can in the worst of circumstances.

Brown and co-presenter Dian Traisci-Marandola, also a public health nurse and director of national programs for the Children’s Health Fund, have seen first-hand what happens when people with health and access issues are hit with a disaster.

“Needs that are not met prior to a disaster are only going to be worse after a disaster occurs,” said Traisci-Marandola, who recently met two new mothers with 2-week-old infants at a Houston shelter last month. Refugees from Hurricane Gustav in August, they had been homeless before the storm and gave birth at the shelter.

All those in emergency preparedness, we salute you. To learn more about what Brown and her colleagues have learned, check out recommendations, treatment guidelines and other documents online.

— D.C.

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