by Rev. Steven K. Wheeler, BSN, RN Minority Nurse Writer
Hurricane Katrina was the most devastating and costly natural disaster in American history, claiming many lives, destroying billions of dollars in property in the Gulf Coast region and leaving thousands of families homeless and grieving. At least 689,000 homes and businesses across Mississippi and Louisiana--including medical facilities and nursing homes--were without electric power. Homes were destroyed and thousands of people were evacuated. The number of individuals killed as a result of the hurricane and subsequent flooding was in the thousands.1
One of the evacuee families the author assisted as part of his relief work in Mississippi and Louisianna. The family pictured lost their home and everything they owned.
As the nation’s political leaders, churches, health care professionals and everyday citizens began to respond to this terrible disaster, I felt compelled to respond as well. As a nurse and a missionary pastor who has been working with the poor and the homeless in Cincinnati, Ohio, for 27 years, I had witnessed a few disasters in my time, but nothing of this magnitude. Despite the enormity of the devastation, I felt prepared to serve, thanks to the clinical training I had received at Mount Carmel College of Nursing in Columbus, Ohio, where I am a graduate student.
According to Dr. Joanne Langan, co-author of the book Preparing Nurses for Disaster Management, every nurse should be prepared in case of a disaster, because they will be sought out for help and information.2 Langan further asserts that nurses have an ethical obligation to be prepared. A recent article published in an Australian nursing journal estimates that for every nurse who is helpless in the face of disaster, at least 50 patients will not be helped.3
One of the evacuee families the author assisted as part of his relief work in Mississippi and L0uisianna.
Having made my decision to get involved in the Katrina relief efforts, I contacted Dr. Ronald Myers, a missionary physician who has worked in the Mississippi Delta region for over 18 years, and asked him what I could do to help. He responded by saying, “Whatever the Lord lays upon your heart.” After much prayer and silent contemplation, I shared my plans with my congregation. Some individuals tried to dissuade me from going to the Gulf Coast because of the potential health and safety dangers that lay ahead. I politely took their advice and placed it somewhere in my heart--but definitely not in the forefront. I was determined to go.
Dr. Ronald Myers of the Myers Foundation.
Next, I contacted Dr. Nancy Rowe, my clinical instructor at Mount Carmel, where I was one semester away from obtaining my master’s degree in nursing. Instead of discouraging me from making the trip, she encouraged me. Some well-meaning individuals asked me about completing my degree and graduating on time. I politely responded, “Graduation can wait, but our neighbors who are in need cannot. They need water, food, medical supplies and medical attention right now!”
Others at Mount Carmel, including Dr. Ann Schiele, the president of the college, and staff members who worked in the college library, were also very supportive of my desire to reach out to those affected by Hurricane Katrina. The school donated furniture, clothing, food, water and other needed items for me to take on my trip.
Listening to the Lost
With the blessing of my congregation and my school, I traveled to Greenville, Miss., in a truck donated by a local pharmacist, Nichelle Lawrence. When I arrived in Greenville, I was met by Dr. Myers and witnessed firsthand the devastation Katrina had caused. We traveled throughout Mississippi and parts of Louisiana where I saw houses overturned, vehicles split in half, grieving grandparents looking for their grandchildren, entire families who were homeless and living in shelters or motels. I witnessed a pregnant woman praying, “I hope my baby stays inside of me until all of this is over with.”
A local disc jockey from New Orleans who helped introduce the author to people in the community.
As I listened to the stories of loved ones lost, spoke with diabetics who had no insulin, saw homes destroyed and people displaced, I truly felt helpless and overwhelmed. It seemed as if all of this was some type of bad dream. I thought, what could I do to be of service to these people with my limited resources? These emotions I experienced were not unique. Studies have shown that initial feelings of being overwhelmed, helpless and in self-doubt are common among nurses who work at disaster sites.4
Many nurses historically have relied on their faith to help them overcome the obstacles they confront in daily practice. A 1999 literature review conducted by Nagai-Jacobson and Burkhardt concluded that spirituality is the cornerstone of nursing practice.5 I decided in my heart to give all that I had. My faith lifted me above the crisis and gave me renewed vigor. This new energy allowed me to accurately assess individual patient needs related to loss, bereavement and grief in this complex, challenging care-giving situation.
For example, at one shelter in Greenville that Dr. Myers and I visited, about 150 people were gathered outside the convention center in a picnic area. I met a gentleman named S.J. who continually spoke about returning to New Orleans in hopes of finding his granddaughter. He was sweating profusely and he continuously paced as he talked. I listened to him for about 45 minutes. By developing a therapeutic relationship and utilizing effective communication skills, I was able to get the man to talk about his love of New Orleans jazz. He was an accomplished jazz guitarist and for the next 20 or 30 minutes he spoke about his achievements in the music world. I could see he was more relaxed and now willing to listen to my advice about staying at the shelter until the authorities said it was safe to re-enter New Orleans.
Life Goes On
As the days went by and my patients’ needs changed, my focus changed as well. I switched from an acute care mentality to addressing the basics of patients’ daily life, such as hygiene, sleep, nutrition and elimination. I encouraged the patients I spoke with to get plenty of rest, eat well and to wash their hands properly to prevent the spread of infections within the shelter. After assessing the situation further and finding out that medicines and medical supplies were lacking, I collaborated with Dr. Charles Dillard of Inner City Healthcare in Cincinnati to collect the needed items.
I went on television and radio and I wrote articles for the Cincinnati Herald to enlist the help of others. No longer did I feel overwhelmed or helpless. Instead I felt like a co-laborer with God and humanity, helping my fellow brothers and sisters in need.
Hurricane Katrina no longer commands the front page of the newspapers and it is not the lead story on the evening news, but it is still in the forefront of my heart and the hearts of many other nurses like me. As nurses, we care for people not because of the publicity we receive but for the satisfaction we get from helping those who need us. Nursing is a noble profession that has traditionally served courageously in the face of disasters and will continue to do so in the future.6
1. Chappell, K., Ballard, S. and Waldron, C. (2005). “Katrina Aftermath: Blacks Tell Their Stories of Courage and Survival.” Jet, Sept. 26, pp. 6-11.
2. Langan, J. and James, D. (2004). Preparing Nurses for Disaster Management. Prentice Hall.
3. “Nurses Should Take Lead in Disasters.” Australian Nursing Journal, Vol. 4, No. 13, p. 10.
4. Suserud, B.-O. and Haljamäe, H. (1997). “Acting at a Disaster Site: Experiences Expressed by Swedish Nurses.” Journal of Advanced Nursing, Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 155-162.
5. Schubert, P.E. and Lionberger, H.J. (1999). “Cultural and Spiritual Perspectives.” In Hitchcock, J.E., Schubert, P.E. and Thomas, S.A. (Eds.), Community Health Nursing: Caring in Action, pp.111-135. Albany, N.Y.: Thomson Delmar Learning.
6. Clark, M.J. (1998). Nursing in the Community: Dimensions of Community Health Nursing, 3rd Edition. Stamford, Conn.: Appleton & Lange.