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Opinion: Earthquake Spurs Nurses into Disaster-Relief Mode

Monday January 25, 2010
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If scientists could test nurses for genes determining personality and character traits, they’d find, among other qualities, what I call the CPOR quartet — compassion, practicality, organization and realism.

I think strong waves of compassion swept up every nurse watching TV broadcasts of the devastation and suffering in Haiti in the wake of the Jan. 12 earthquake. Like me, you were probably flooded with an overwhelming desire to help. My initial response was totally irrational. I wanted to stuff my old pediatric handbook in a backpack and hop on the next plane to Port-au-Prince, and I haven’t cared for a patient in years. I’m sure plenty of you felt the same way. Of course, if any of us acted on such an impulse, we would fast become part of the problem, not the solution.

The real problem solvers, nurses, and others who are part of Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, other disaster relief agencies and large medical center teams, were deployed as quickly as possible by air and sea. Our reporters, writers and editors have begun to post stories on our Web site, Nurse.com, about the nurses on the ground in Haiti, those on stand-by and those who were in the country when the quake struck. In the weeks and possibly years to come, we expect to post and print stories of their courage, ingenuity, endurance and teamwork. But in this issue we’re bringing you advice and information from disaster experts. They appeal to your practical side. If you aren’t trained in disaster relief and do not belong to an organization specializing in disasters, you belong stateside right now.

That’s not to say you can’t begin to acquire the skills you would need to respond to a major catastrophe, such as Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti. Start planning right now. Decide who could cover your family and community responsibilities if you volunteered your time. Ask human resources staff about your facilities’ policies related to volunteer service in the U.S. or elsewhere. Consider learning a new language. Nurses who speak Creole are certainly in demand right now.

And realistically consider what you can offer and when it might be needed. For example, Haiti will need trained volunteers for months and years to come. Many nurses have already spent time there in the past as part of medical missions and will be needed again to help their healthcare colleagues establish new hospitals, clinics, and school and home health services. The need for nurse volunteers continues to this day four years after Katrina’s destruction.

Use your expert assessment skills and decide what you can do now to help, what you need to do if you’d like to become a “first-responder” in the future, and how you can learn more about applying your current skills as a volunteer in the future in Haiti, or anywhere disaster strikes.

We don’t need to ask if disaster will strike again. We know it will. We also know people will always need compassionate, practical, organized, realistic and, I’ll add, optimistic, can-do nurses.