As Hurricane Irma loomed in the Atlantic, making its way toward the Florida and Georgia coast, many Augustans welcomed their neighbors in this time of crisis. Beyond the often-cited needs of evacuees such as food and shelter, many evacuees also required medical support. For students in the Bachelors of Science in Nursing program at the Augusta University College of Nursing, this need was also a learning opportunity.
In the race against the storm, Instructor Tracey Puig-Baker and Dr. Deborah Smith made the swift decision to offer clinical hours to the 41 BSN students—a third of the senior BSN class—in their Adult Health Nursing course. While many students were already looking to volunteer in some capacity, Puig-Baker felt providing course credit recognized the clinical skills that these students were able to practice.
Offering course credit for this experience was more than a snap decision. It required much coordination and an expedited approval process. Puig-Baker worked to secure this opportunity and coordinate the students’ schedules, in addition to her own volunteer work with the shelters. Typically, this type of volunteering requires special medical reserve training; however, Puig-Baker worked with the Augusta University Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response (CEPaR) to ensure that students could be expedited through this process.
Although a shelter for hurricane relief is not the usual nursing school scene, these BSN students sharpened their skills in providing care and comfort while also impacting their community. “The BSN senior students were an asset to providing care to the evacuees at the Westside High School shelter,” said Puig-Baker. “I am truly proud of the students who were able to come out during the hurricane weather and help care for the evacuees.”
According to Tammy Burdeaux, District Nursing Director for the East Central Public Health District and Distinguished Alumna, there were over 2,500 evacuees housed in 10 shelters in Richmond County. She estimated that over 100 evacuees had “functional needs” including mobility issues needing care for diabetes. The 41 BSN student volunteers joined over 200 nurses in providing medical support. “We wouldn’t have survived this without the Augusta University students and the faculty,” she said. “It was all hands on deck!”
Typically, seniors in the Adult Health Nursing class earn course credit through observation at the Public Health Department, Christ Community Center, University Home Health and others. In many ways the students’ work at the shelters mirrored those traditional volunteer experiences, including that College of Nursing faculty were readily available to assist them. However, a key difference in the shelter was that students played an active role in care rather than just observing. Students provided bed baths, blood pressure and blood sugar checks, and helped evacuees with hygiene needs.
This novel setting meant that student needed to utilize a different skill set. “The most important thing that I learned from this experience was having to think a little outside of the box,” said BSN Student Alys Fleming. “One issue was dressing wounds with limited supplies; dressing a wound in this kind of setting was very different than in a hospital setting.
Another student, Courtney Middlebrook, echoed this sentiment and said, “The most important thing I learned in this experience is that not everything is always going to go smoothly. You have to be flexible and willing to work it out. You need to be smart with your resources and creative when you have to make something so it can accommodate the needs of the patient. It was a very humbling experience to watch the community come together and help these people during their time of need.”
Not all of the help the students provided was health-related. Students also comforted evacuees, handed out meals and even walked some pets. Student Emma Kane said it was the small comforts that she provided that made her feel like she was giving back. She recalled one woman who she developed a connection with, saying, “I started painting her nails at 5:30 in the morning and from there on we had a special relationship. I hope she and many others can look back on this experience and not have the worst memories of staying in a high school gym.”
The College of Nursing has offered training for disaster relief in the past. Each spring students attend a training at a FEMA facility in Anniston, AL that focuses on chemical, biological, and radiation disasters. Students have the option of attending additional disaster preparedness training through FEMA. “When they go to FEMA this year, they will have a better understanding of what we do in these disasters,” said Puig-Baker.