Nurse Heroes

    • December 6, 2012

A team of neonatal nurses descended dark stairwells while manually pumping oxygen into the delicate lungs of newborn babies after the electrical power, and then the back-up power, went out at NYU Langone Medical Center at the height of Hurricane Sandy.

Two days after that, a nurse left her car on a Newark street to deliver a baby in a nearby station wagon that was stuck in a traffic jam caused by Sandy’s power outages.

And in the days that followed, undaunted troops of visiting nurses left their own homes and families to provide essential medical care to hurricane-affected patients still struggling in the aftermath of the storm.

These are just some of the stories that have surfaced in recent weeks about the critical role nurses played during and after Hurricane Sandy washed ashore. They are stories of selflessness and sacrifice, bravery and brawn, and they have captured the country’s imagination and granted the kind of hero status to nurses that is usually reserved for other first responders like firefighters, police officers, emergency medical personnel, doctors—and even working dogs.

This time, however, nurses are being widely recognized for their emergency-relief work, prompting cheers from nurse leaders who say their profession deserves public recognition for the key role nurses play during natural and human-created disasters. Click here to read more about news coverage of nurses during and after Hurricane Sandy.

"[The president] said he likes doctors, but he loves nurses." -Kim Glassman, PhD, RN, NEA-BC

The heroic work of nurses has indeed drawn plaudits from the public, the press and even the president, who delivered a personal shout-out to the nurses and doctors who safely transported the newborns at Langone to safety. “This week,” he said, “we have been humbled by nature’s destructive power, but we’ve been inspired as well. For when the storm was darkest, the heroism of our fellow citizens shone brightest.”

Obama also took the time to make a personal phone call to Kim Glassman, PhD, RN, NEA-BC, the chief nursing officer at Langone and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Executive Nurse Fellow (2011-2013), to thank her and her team for their life-saving work. At the end of the call, Obama reiterated his deep support for nurses, Glassman says. “He said he likes doctors, but he loves nurses,” she reports.

The published accounts don’t begin to describe the magnitude of the work nurses have done since the storm slammed into New York and New Jersey in October, Glassman said: “The kinds of scenarios we saw with the evacuation of the babies were unfolding on every nursing unit in the entire hospital.”

And nurses played key roles in other locations around the region. Elizabeth Cohn, RN, DNSc, a former firefighter who is an assistant professor of nursing at Columbia University and an RWJF Nurse Faculty Scholar (2012-2014), for example, spent a three-day weekend volunteering at a shelter for medically fragile people. Maria LoGrippo, MSN, RN, a New Jersey Nursing Scholar with the RWJF New Jersey Nursing Initiative, worked to help restore power at a housing community for senior citizens in New Jersey.

Other nurses waded through knee-high water to help people get out of their homes, drove patients with kidney failure to distant dialysis centers, and crossed impassable roads—with little gasoline—to care for their patients, according to a recent Reuters story.

“It’s just been incredible to see everybody step up, even though they themselves have been without child care, school’s not in session, their homes are cold, they don’t have much food, they’re having to wait in line for hours and hours for gasoline,” Steven Landers, MD, MPH, president and CEO of the Visiting Nurse Association Health Group of New Jersey, told Reuters. “I’m sort of speechless. It’s just amazing.”

A Long History of Service

Hurricane Sandy, of course, is not the first disaster to draw support from the nation’s nurses.

In the 19th century, Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross, a world leader in disaster relief work that relies heavily on nurses and nurse volunteers. Since its founding, nurses have served in disasters ranging from the hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas, in 1900 to the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., in 2001—and the many earthquakes, fires, droughts, storms, wars and acts of terrorism in between.

Today, the American Red Cross responds to roughly 70,000 disasters in the United States every year, and nurses continue to play a leading role. It is among a number of organizations that put volunteer nurses to work during national and international emergencies.

“It’s extremely rewarding work,” said RWJF Senior Adviser for Nursing Susan B. Hassmiller, PhD, RN, FAAN, who chairs the board of the American Red Cross of Central New Jersey. “I do all kinds of policy work and program development work, and that’s very important. But I tell you, when I work on a disaster, it gets me back to the roots of nursing. It’s one-on-one.”

Hassmiller won the Florence Nightingale Medal, nursing’s highest honor, in 2009 for her disaster relief work.  Read more about the award, presented by the International Committee of the Red Cross, here.

Still, more needs to be done to improve and strengthen the role of nurses during emergencies, according to Sharon Stanley, PhD, RN, the chief nurse at the American Red Cross and an RWJF Executive Nurse Fellow (2011-2013).

The American Red Cross, for example, frequently faces shortages of nurse volunteers when disaster strikes, said Stanley, who took part in disaster relief efforts in New York after Hurricane Sandy struck. That’s because many nurses are committed to carrying out disaster plans laid out by the organizations for which they work and are not able to volunteer elsewhere. In addition, gender equity in the paid workforce—more women holding and holding onto their jobs—has resulted in fewer volunteers than in previous generations. “We’ve seen a decrease in our health professional volunteer force since the 1970s,” Stanley said.

Nurses who are able to volunteer with the American Red Cross, meanwhile, continue to need training and preparation, Stanley said. She is using her Executive Nurse Fellowship to more fully integrate nurses into community preparedness and to help them play larger roles as leaders of disaster-response efforts.

“Every nurse should be a trained disaster nurse,” Hassmiller said. “If we could train more people, then more people will be available, willing and comfortable serving.”

The good news is that there are thousands of people—including many nurses—who do want to volunteer. “We’re working on a better way to intake and ‘receive’ these volunteers so we can get them to the field more quickly and, at the same time, maintain the integrity of our client services,” Stanley said. “It’s about providing those services to our communities in an effective, safe and efficient way.”

Cohn, a nurse scientist, says more research into nursing’s role during disasters is needed. “As more fragile patients are being discharged to home and cared for in community settings, we need further research,” she said. “We do not have good, solid research around what patients in an emergency might need, especially the medically fragile and those with special needs. That is really fertile ground.”