R e t u r n   t o   t a b l e   o f   c o n t e n t s

Anytime, anywhere, School of Nursing faculty, students, and alumniare making
sure that Georgia and the nation
are ready for the next disaster

By Valerie Gregg


The horror of (September 11)
was suddenly knowing that our sense of security wasn’t real... As citizens of the world, nurses have been called to a new level of awareness, and we must all respond.

—Tim Porter-O’Grady, affiliate
faculty member of nursing
and volunteer with the new
Georgia Nurse Alert System

Most people don’t realize that nurses have always played a very large role in responding to disasters–probably because they are usually wearing blue jeans, not white uniforms.

—Linda Spencer, clinical associate
professor of nursing and long-time
American Red Cross volunteer

We have learned how important it is to have accurate and timely information coming from one source, in one united voice. With everything we learned from
the tragic events of last fall, we will be better prepared for any disaster.

—Erin Poe Ferranti, 98N, 01MSN/MPH, assistant chief nurse
for the Office of Nursing,
Georgia Division of Public Health



There was no nursing shortage in New York City on September 11. Nurses came to the scene of the ruined twin towers at the World Trade Center by any means possible. They hitched rides on garbage trucks, commandeered city buses, took boats, trains, or walked—whatever it took. They stayed as long as necessary and did what they could. One nurse volunteer described it as “the darkest day of my life but the brightest moment of my nursing career.” They showed up and set to work when and where they were needed because that is what nurses do.

Making the most of so many capable helping hands during times of crisis takes planning, practice, communication, and know-how. The faculty, students, and alumni of the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing are working hard to make sure that Georgia and the nation are ready for the next disaster, whether it happens to be a hurricane, explosion, or bioterrorist outbreak.

“Nurses are on the front lines of any emergency for triage and making decisions about who goes where and who gets what,” says affiliate faculty member Tim Porter-O’Grady, also president of the Georgia Nurses Foundation. “Nurses are the gatekeepers, and they are indispensable.”

Linda Spencer, clinical associate professor and director of the Public Health Nursing Leadership Program, agrees. “Most people don’t realize that nurses have always played a very large role in responding to disasters—probably because they are usually wearing blue jeans, not white uniforms.”

Spencer has volunteered as an American Red Cross disaster response nurse for more than 12 years, working hurricanes, house fires, explosions, tornadoes, and floods. She has received the Florence Nightingale Medal, the highest award of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and has trained hundreds of nurses in the Red Cross system of disaster response and management.

Although she was unable to join the Red Cross effort in New York City last fall, on April 19, 1995, she raced to the scene of another terrorist attack—Oklahoma City—after a massive bomb destroyed the nine-story Murrah Federal Building. As the bodies of 168 men, women, and children were pulled from the rubble, Spencer made condolence calls to the families of victims.

“I served as the nurse on a Red Cross condolence team that also included a mental health worker and a social worker,” she says. “Families were affected in ways that were different from the more typical natural disasters. In Oklahoma City, homes weren’t destroyed, but family breadwinners had died. We saw reactions ranging from shattering, gut-wrenching grief to utter denial. At one home we visited, the wife of a victim was floating around the room, serving food and chatting with visitors, being a social butterfly. She was in total denial. She had not faced the fact that her husband was dead.”

Meeting the needs of victims, especially during an incident causing mass casualties, requires an orchestrated response in which all volunteers arrive and know just what to do. Red Cross volunteer nurses must be certified in disaster response, which requires 11 hours of classes, and only LPNs and RNs are eligible. Spencer recently taught a free Red Cross disaster response certification course at the School of Nursing. About 20 nursing students, faculty, and nurses from the community attended.

“The certification is so important because all the volunteers must be on the same page about what to do when they arrive on the scene of a disaster,” says Spencer. “Because the Red Cross response system is so standardized—it always proceeds in basically the same manner—it is a very organized and smooth-running process. It’s truly amazing to watch the set-up of a disaster response site. It’s like choreography. Everyone knows just what to do during an intense, high-pressure, stressful time.”

On high alert
For Porter-O’Grady, who teaches leadership, health care economics, and futures issues at the school, September 11 made him view the world, the nation, and his nursing career through a different lens.

“We had lived for so long with the feeling that we were under a magical halo of protection,” he says. “The horror of it was suddenly knowing that our sense of security wasn’t real. We had been living a myth, and now we can no longer live under that mythology. As citizens of the world, nurses have been called to a new level of awareness, and we must all respond.”

Soon after September 11, Porter-O’Grady helped organize the Georgia Nurse Alert System, a list of nurses for state public health officials to call on during times of crisis. The effort brought together a wide variety of state nursing groups—including the Georgia Nurses Association, the Georgia Nurses Foundation, the state Department of Human Resources, the Board of Nursing, and the American Red Cross.

About 200 nurses have signed on so far, including Porter-O’Grady. The list categorizes nurses by specialty, and his expertise is gerontology with a focus on wound care.

“Each of us has our own gifts and skills to offer, and it will take all of us working together to prepare,” he says. “As nurses, it is our professional obligation to be available and lend our skills.”

Erin Poe Ferranti, 98N, 01MSN/MPH, assistant chief nurse for the Office of Nursing in the Georgia Division of Public Health, says the best thing nurses can do to help during times of crisis is to volunteer their services now—not after a disaster occurs. Georgia was the first state to establish a volunteer source like the Georgia Nurse Alert System. But then Georgia is better prepared to respond to disaster than most other states. Before hosting the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, the state made contingency plans for virtually every type of disaster. Nurses figure heavily in almost every scenario.

“During any emergency, it is essential to have highly skilled nurses available to respond, especially where special-needs populations are concerned,” says Ferranti. “The Office of Nursing is now writing a manual to set common procedures in caring for displaced and evacuated populations in a shelter or mass holding site.”

Powerful lessons

Ferranti has seen nurses and the entire nation go through some hard lessons about effective disaster management. She began her job in the Office of Nursing on October 16, just as the anthrax epidemic hit.

“Anthrax scares were overwhelming our local public health departments,” she says. “The majority of the scares posed no credible threat, and the greatest issue was figuring out what to do with all the samples of white powder suspected of containing anthrax. The panic associated with the situation overwhelmed the staff as well. We were not prepared to answer all the phone calls. Nationally, there was a lot of information coming through the pipes, and it was constantly being updated and changed. Local health departments needed clear direction about what to do. From all of this, we have learned how important it is to have accurate, timely information coming from one source, in one united voice. With everything we learned from the tragic events of last fall, we will be better prepared for any disaster.”

Alumni involvement in preparing for disasters doesn’t stop there. Dr. Judith Lupo Wold, 81MN, a visiting scholar at the School of Nursing, represents Emory in an organization called the International Nursing Coalition for Mass Casualty Education (INCMCE), of which the nursing school is a formal member. Organized by Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, the group has more than 50 members from universities, agencies, and organizations who have worked for nearly two years to develop bioterrorism and disaster training curricula for nurses. INCMCE also provides an Internet information clearinghouse (see below) for nurses on disaster prevention and response.

Valerie Gregg is assistant director of Health Sciences Publications at Emory University.

To learn more about disaster response nursing,
visit the following websites:



Everyone in our community came to
help us. . . The way people came to our aid was touching and inspiring.

—Nursing student and
American Red Cross volunteer
Susie Kahl, whose home burned
when she was a teenager

A new pair of helping hands

A dense snow began to fall early on a Friday evening in the winter of 1993, and it continued on through the night. In Martin’s Creek, North Carolina, winter weather seldom amounts to much, so Susie Kahl and her sister gave it little thought. But when they awoke the next morning, the roads were impassable, they had no groceries, and the electricity was out. They had no heat or water, and the snow was thigh high. The sisters, then 15 and 18, were home alone for the weekend, and they were not prepared.

At an American Red Cross disaster response training course recently offered at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, Kahl, a junior at the school, relived her family’s brush with disaster.

“At first it was kind of fun,” she says. “We were melting snow for water, and my sister and I made a pallet next to the fireplace, which our family had never used before. We stayed there all day, and the next day we took two sleds over to our neighbor’s house to borrow some firewood. When we came back, the house was full of smoke. We saw flames leaping in a fireplace vent, so we knew there was a fire in the wall. Two fire extinguishers did not put it out, and the fire trucks couldn’t make it through the snow to our house. We finally used a neighbor’s pickaxe and sledgehammer to break up the hearth and the wall, and then we packed the fireplace with snow, which finally did the trick.”

The incident, which displaced her family for several months while their home was repaired, was a turning point for Kahl.

“Everyone in our community came to help us,” she says. “They made an assembly line to carry snow into the house and stuff it up the chimney and between the floors to put the fire out. The way people came to our aid was touching and inspiring.”

Kahl has been helping others ever since through her involvement with the Red Cross. She has been Red Cross–certified as a lifeguard and in first aid, and she donates blood or platelets every month. After Sept. 11, her thoughts turned immediately to how she could help if terrorists attacked Atlanta. The Red Cross class at the School of Nursing showed her just what to do. Now she is ready for anything. Anytime, anywhere.

—Valerie Gregg




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