OAKLAND, Calif., Aug. 28 In the days following HurricaneKatrina, countless numbers watched, and listened, to the growing chaos indisbelief. Thousands of registered nurses from across the nation, frustratedin their efforts to volunteer through government or private relief agenciesturned to the National Nurses Organizing Committee/California NursesAssociation to do what they do best, provide hands-on, front line care to thesick and injured.
NNOC/CNA is not normally in the disaster-relief business, but theprofessional organization of direct-care registered nurses quickly mobilizedto place hundreds of RNs across the nation who responded to the organization'semergency call for volunteers. By the time the flood waters were recedingNNOC/CNA had placed over 300 nurses in 25 understaffed public hospitals,triage clinics and other facilities throughout Texas, Louisiana andMississippi.
While in the Gulf these RNs helped care for the thousands of peopleabandoned without food, water, shelter, medical care, or even a basicevacuation plan. They returned to their own communities, vowing to change theway disaster relief occurs in this country. Their experiences gave birth toRNRN -- the Registered Nurse Response Network, the first national network ofdirect care nurses that coordinates the deployment of volunteer RNs todisaster stricken areas when they are needed most.
One year after its formation RNRN has signed up over 4,000 RNs to relievetheir beleaguered colleagues in the next disaster zone. The project hasconducted classes in over 16 cities examining the RNs unique ability to be thedriving force in pressing for universal health care and disasterpreparedness/response standards. Class participants are resolved that byjoining the network, they are taking steps to ensure that the tragedies ofKatrina are never repeated.
Sue Levitan, a nurse with 20 years experience at a Louisville, KY hospitalwho was sent to New Orleans by NNOC/CNA summed it up best: "Nurses can'tprevent natural disasters, but we can help prevent man-made ones. That's whywe joined together to be ready the next time disaster strikes, and are takingthe necessary measures to make sure our health care system is ready too."
While RNRN gives these nurses reason for optimism, the current conditionsin the Gulf, where little has changed, and the health care system remainscrippled, continues to anger them. RN Levitan explains, "many of the peoplehardest hit by Katrina were more vulnerable because their health had alreadybeen compromised by years of neglect from the health care industry that existsin this country. It's easy to find statistics about how the United States is37th in the world in providing health care, but much more difficult to comeface to face with the people who suffer as a result."
With the city down 1,000 beds, 6,000 caregivers, and seven hospitals,people are not seeking care until they are acutely ill, New Orleans nursesfind themselves delivering care to a sicker population in fewer settings withless resources.
"We are seeing an increased number of children with asthma from living inFEMA trailers that have mold and are cold in the winter and blazing hot in thesummer," said Laurie McInnis, a St. Bernard Parish native and RN who is thenurse coordinator responsible for the health and well-being of over 4,000St. Bernard students, ranging from preschool to high school. "Our localhospital, Chalmette Medical Center, closed, the nearest hospital is now 40minutes away, and the closest health facility is a clinic and urgent carecenter run by the Franciscans, located in a Wal-Mart parking lot that closesat 8:00 pm. Pre-Katrina there were 25 dentists and 10 pediatricians who tookMedicare; today there are none."
"The remaining nine hospitals in the area have minimal services with ashortage of beds which are understaffed and overloaded with too manypat