SEIU and the Nurse Alliance have a network in place to send nurses and other first responders to areas hit by emergencies and natural disasters. Working with International Medical Corps, nurses receive urgent deployment opportunities and training to enhance their ability to assist on the ground when disaster strikes.
In October 2018, six SEIU Healthcare PA nurses answered the call – some with only hours’ notice – to assist those in the heavily damaged areas of Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. As nurses so often do, they jumped into action first and figured out their life later.
Two of those nurses, Cathy Stoddart from Allegheny General Hospital and Jeri Torrance from Heritage Valley Beaver, shared their experiences.
Cathy Stoddart is no stranger to disaster relief. Here, she shares a journal entry from her latest deployment and some thoughts and experiences from responding to Hurricane Michael:
We arrived in the dark of night to be picked up for transport by a volunteer from International Medical Corps. At 01:20am, I laid my head on a cot sharing a space with strangers and disaster response mobile medical vehicle units in a giant, cold warehouse. A kind woman stated she is our “watchman” and that I could close my eyes knowing I am safe to sleep. I thought to myself, what a wonderful feeling it is to know that I am safe, and I felt sad for the hurricane victims who may not be safe at this moment. I thought how lucky I am, compared to the newly homeless survivors of this monster hurricane that ripped away the lives of some, and left the remnants of other lives mixed together in the rubble. I prayed, “Lord help me to do good in my work today.”
The second shelter I worked in had inhabitants from Panama City, Mexico Beach, Bristol, and Blountstown. I was a night shift nurse during my time there, but people do not sleep. They cry at night, all the worries pushed aside from daily activities of eating and paperwork and the bustle of the shelter are gone. In its place is the loneliness of not being at home with their neighbors, family, pets, and friends. Sitting at a bedside, helping people to reason out the next steps of their lives is heart-wrenchingly hard. Holding hands while you assess your patient and listen to their needs is a repetitive act. All they own is in a grocery bag now, under their bed. I am blessed that my vocation as a nurse can help others in their times of need. I have never felt closer to the art and science of nursing than when I am working in the aftermath of a disaster. I believe it is our duty to respond to disaster as part of nurse ethics and practice. It was my honor and it filled my soul to do so. I believe it is a social justice mission. I am forever grateful for the opportunity.
Cathy Stoddart, MSN, RN
I love to help people. I’m pretty sure that’s what I was put on this earth to do. It’s why I became a nurse. It’s also why I am an EMT, Volunteer Fire Chief, and an Instructor. So when I received an email stating volunteers were needed to go to Florida and help our after Hurricane Michael, I jumped at the chance.
I asked my manager if there was any way I could take a week off to make the trip. She was actually very accommodating and was able to rearrange the schedule to take me off for the week. She even asked if she could tell my coworkers why I was going to be off because she was proud of me! So I started on my paperwork – I was so excited! Once I got my paperwork all completed and all I had to do was wait for my deployment day and time, I started getting nervous…I had never done this before! What had I gotten myself into? What was expected of me once I got there? Who would I be working alongside? I can get along with pretty much anyone but the thought of going all alone to a place where I knew not even one person was a little scary!
I flew to Tallahassee early Saturday morning on October 13, 2018. The first person I met when I landed was another nurse who was there for the same reason. Her name was Terry and we hit it off immediately, and that really helped put me at ease.
The first day was spent picking others up at the airport, making up our cots for the night, and a dinner meeting with the whole group to discuss our plans.
The next morning, Terry, Natasha, Jenna and I made a 1 1/2 hour trip to Marianna Florida to help our in the Special Needs shelter they had put in the high school. We went to work and I concentrated on the tasks. Each client was to have vitals each shift, (12 hour shifts). We assisted them with appointments with FEMA, helped them shower, served them meals, and pretty much attended to whatever they needed. If a client was out of medication, we sent someone to a pharmacy about an hour away to get them refilled. There was also plenty of time spent sitting with the client and just listening to them tell their story, which they needed to tell.
One gentleman, who was brought in to our shelter, said he had left home without his medications. Our logistics people got his address from him and left to go get his medications for him. They returned about 2 hours later, looking totally dejected. They found the mans mailbox, but didn’t see the house . So they went to his neighbors house and she told them where it was. They looked, but the house was completely gone. They never did find anything other than his mailbox. But these people were absolutely amazing! Many of them lost everything they had and the rest lost most of what they had. But they were smiling! All their worldly possessions were sitting in garbage bags or boxes under their cot, and they were making new friends at the shelter!!!
One elderly lady noticed I had been fairly busy and she didn’t see me eat lunch (I had snuck to the break room and ate quickly) and OFFERED ME HALF OF HERS!! She lost everything she owned. She had no house. No possessions except a few clothes and small items. And she wanted to give me her food! Those wonderful people really helped to put things into perspective for me.
The second day there, our team leader was reassigned to another area and the remainder of the team voted me as the new Team Lead – this was my first time ever in this type of situation and they wanted me to lead – I just didn’t want to let them down! We worked so well together though that it wasn’t hard at all. You would have thought we had all known each other and worked together for years, but we had only known each other 2 days!!!! The teamwork was incredible!
When I got home the following Saturday, I had such mixed emotions. I felt wonderful about the week I had spent helping the Florida clients, but I almost felt lost without my team…we had all really bonded and it’s almost heartbreaking leaving them. We had all exchanged phone numbers and for the first few weeks after coming home we were in touch everyday. It had weaned off some now, but we still say hello now and then. My biggest worry about doing this work again is that I don’t see how I could possibly have a better team next time. We were perfect together. A bunch of complete strangers came together and made it happen and managed to laugh at times. I miss them. I miss them a lot.
Jeri Torrance, RN, Heritage Valley Beaver