U.S. Nurses Head to Haiti to Help Earthquake Victims

    • February 25, 2010

Four days had passed since the January 12 earthquake struck Haiti, and Tim Bristol, Ph.D., R.N., C.N.E., a nurse educator who teaches nursing on a volunteer basis in Leogane, Haiti, hadn’t heard from any of his Haitian colleagues or students.

“We knew nothing, and of course we feared the worst,” Bristol recalled.

So he decided to see the damage for himself. On January 19, Bristol landed by military helicopter on the grounds of the nursing school in Leogane, the epicenter of the earthquake. He and his colleagues had lost four suitcases and all of their water during the journey, but they were relieved to see that the nursing school was still standing.

It wasn’t long before Bristol was transporting trauma victims to the U.S. Navy’s medical relief hospital on the U.S.S. Comfort and treating them in a makeshift trauma center at the nursing school.

“Two of my nursing students are sleeping outside because we don’t have enough tents,” he wrote in blog entry from Haiti. “Tomorrow we will start driving through the city to bring patients to the nursing school. We are still finding patients with severe injuries that have not been seen. Many end in amputations.”

Positive Media Attention Helps Counter Negative Portrayals of Nurses, Experts Say

Bristol is one of scores of volunteer nurses from around the country and the world who have traveled to Haiti in the past six weeks to help victims of the 7.3 magnitude quake. Many more have signed up to head to Haiti through organizations such as the American Nurses Association and National Nurses United, which are coordinating ongoing nursing volunteer relief efforts with non-profit and government organizations.

Although much of the media attention has gone to physicians, nurses are also getting an unusual amount of airtime in local and national newscasts for their efforts in Haiti.

Television news programs have aired stories with headlines like “Houston Nurses Ready to Help Haiti” and “North Idaho Nurse Joins Haitian Disaster Relief Effort,” and the print and online media are following suit with similar stories.

Images of nurses saving lives and playing other key medical roles in Haiti and elsewhere help offset portrayals of nurses in subordinate or demeaning roles on many of television’s medical dramas, says Susan Hassmiller, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N., the senior adviser for nursing at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

“The earthquake in Haiti was certainly devastating,” she says. “But I was gratified to see newscasts featuring nurses helping to save so many lives. These real-life nurses help counter the negative portrayals of nurses that we see on many fictional television shows.”

Hassmiller has done more than her part to help victims of disaster.

Last year, she received nursing’s highest international honor—the Florence Nightingale Medal from the International Committee of the Red Cross—for her work in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and several natural disasters in the United States and abroad. She also served as the chair of Disaster Services while on the National Board of Governors of the American Red Cross.

To be sure, television news coverage of the quake has covered the broad array of volunteers, including doctors, aid workers and other responders, who descended on Haiti to offer help. CNN’s medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, M.D., for example, landed in the limelight after he examined a 15-day-old infant while on air.

Still, nurses are getting more attention than usual for their work in Haiti, and for good reason. In the weeks since the earthquake hit, many Haitian and foreign nurses have taken on the role of their community’s sole primary care provider, Bristol says.

Nursing students are also taking on great responsibility, he adds. Nursing students in Leogane, for example, joined foreign medical teams, ran recovery rooms and managed wound care triage. Now they are helping victims recover from amputations and cope with problems resulting from contaminated water such as diarrhea and cholera.

“They did a fantastic job,” Bristol says. “It was quite a sight!”