Groups volunteer time, energy to assist hurricane evacuees

When Susan Weeks received a call from the American Red Cross, she knew the Harris School of Nursing could play a different kind of role in helping the thousands in the Fort Worth area displaced by Hurricane Katrina.”I got a call saying cargo planes of patients were being flown to Fort Worth hospitals,” said Weeks, MS, RN. “Red Cross asked me to get a group of nurses together for Disaster Welfare Inquiry.”

Groups of one to three nursing faculty members and three to five nursing students went to area hospitals to gather information from the evacuee patients to be put into a database, so family members who were separated and searching for each other could be matched up, said Weeks, clinical facilities coordinator for the nursing school.

Weeks, who has worked with the Red Cross for several years, said the groups were headed by herself and Lea Montgomery, MS, RN and nursing school lecturer.

“We didn’t have a choice,” said Dr. Kris Riddlesperger, a maternal-child nurse and lecturer in the nursing school. “It’s what we do.”

Due to the nurses’ efforts, a man with chronic illnesses was reunited with his son in Houston a day after the inquiry started, said Dr. Dennis Cheek, professor of gerontological nursing.

Weeks said the students are not just performing community service, but they are adding to their knowledge as future nurses.

In addition to sending students to area hospitals for inquiries, the department also sent students to clinics where they performed health evaluations.

Senior nursing majors Jennifer Lauderdale and Karen Collins said the work in the clinics gave them a chance to use the skills they have learned in class in a real-life situation before they graduate.

Some of the duties included setting up doctor’s appointments for the patients, checking their blood pressure, making sure they had necessary medications and just paying attention to them, Collins said.

“We played patient-advocate,” Lauderdale said. “We didn’t let them slip through the cracks. It’s so easy to get lost in a big disaster.”

Riddlesperger said the students are also learning how to communicate with different types of people. She said the students who were helping with the inquiry encountered a blind man who was partially deaf. He could not sign or speak and did not have any identification.

Collins said she had to figure out the needs of people, so she could assure them that they would be taken care of, regardless of their disabilities. To do this, Collins said she had learned to feed off of her peers and work as part of a team.

The nursing faculty and students have not just been taking the opportunity made by Hurricane Katrina to help, but many have been volunteering in their spare time as well.

Weeks taught a course at TCU at the beginning of September to train nurses to work in shelters dealing with disasters, training the Red Cross requires before letting nurses volunteer in its clinics. She said about 10 to 12 members of the faculty took the course and went to work in the shelters as soon as they could.

“We’re really looking at the big picture,” Weeks said. “We’re looking at the health of the patients and volunteers.”

Weeks said large problems, such as communicable diseases, are not the only concerns the nurses have. She said they pay attention to small things, like the amount of light while people are trying to sleep and whether those with diabetes are getting suitable foods. She also said the nurses are concerned about the emotional status of the patients and volunteers.

Riddlesperger has completed several eight-hour shifts at the Worth Heights Community Shelter on New York Avenue.

She said her job was to initially screen the evacuees and identify their needs.

Due to numerous donations by Walgreens, Riddlesperger said, the nurses are able to give people over-the-counter medicines that they request.

She said most of the medical complaints recorded are sinus infections, allergies, headaches, calluses and other low-grade illnesses. She said the nurses try to take care of the evacuees while letting them maintain their independence.

“It’s hard to have to ask for everything,” Riddlesperger said.

However, if the evacuees need more help, Riddlesperger said she is willing to give more.

After taking a woman’s blood pressure and putting a Garfield bandage on a little boy in a blue jersey, she said she picked up an evacuee from school because the girl had a 105-degree temperature. Riddlesperger said the girl had been in water for several hours in New Orleans, so her high temperature caused alarm among the volunteers. They put the girl in an ambulance, making sure to notify her guardian, her aunt.

As important as it is to take care of the medical side of the evacuees, the volunteers must listen to the evacuees who want to talk, Riddlesperger said.

She listened to the girl’s aunt, who said the girl’s mother is missing, along with two of her own children.

“They have been through more than I could consider going through,” Riddlesperger said.

She said the children are the most resilient; they’re laughing, playing, coping and moving on.

Collins said many people remained hopeful. She said she heard many people say, “God will provide.”

The Red Cross would not let the Skiff speak with the evacuees due to the sensitivity of the situation and the organization’s policy. The nursing faculty and students, however, have received positive feedback for their efforts.

“People seemed genuinely impressed by TCU and Texas in general,” Lauderdale said. “They are grateful.

“It didn’t matter to them that we were students.”

As much as the nursing school has done, Collins and Lauderdale said they are planning to do more. They said the Student Nurses’ Association is organizing a hygiene drive to collect items such as shampoo, toothpaste and razors.

“You gain twice as much as you give,” Collins said.

Lauderdale agreed.

“I want to go back and do it some more,” she said.