Nurses volunteer in relief efforts post-Katrina

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Immediately following Hurricane Katrina, which hit the northern Gulf Coast on August 29th, the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) contacted the Louisiana State Nurses Association (LSNA) and the Mississippi Board of Nursing to express its concern and condolences, and to find out how Ontario nurses might help to curb the suffering of thousands of people devastated by the disaster. In the days following one of the biggest natural disasters in US history, more than 65 nurses from Brampton to Oshawa and from Toronto to Timmins responded to RNAO’s call for support, and offered their expertise and experience to the victims.

“I commend RNAO for asking what help is needed from the Louisiana and Mississippi State and Board nurses,” Thorold RN Kim Stasiak says. “So often we just go off with our own ideas and plans and don’t get the local experience and input for what is needed most…and when. It may be completely different from what we thought was needed, or what we provided in a past disaster.”

The nurses who have come forward to volunteer understand and embrace the idea that they might join hundreds of other health-care professionals and volunteers from all over North America who are working tirelessly to ensure the health and safety of those affected.

Sandy Crayford, an RN from St. Catharines, is one of those nurses touched by the plight of our American neighbours. “First and foremost, please accept my sincerest sympathies for the huge losses the people of Mississippi and Louisiana have endured…” she wrote in an e-mail to RNAO. “Please know that all of Canada is praying for you and know we will work with you through this most horrific time.”

Many of the nurses who have expressed interest in volunteering have done so because they feel a professional obligation to help out, they have had experience doing aid work in the past, or they just want to lend a hand in any way possible.

“I’ve recently returned from six months in Southeast Asia, and spent some time volunteering on the island of Ko Phi Phi Don in the tsunami-affected area of Thailand,” Toronto RN Valerie Rzepka writes of the unique experience she would bring to a volunteer role. Tammy Tebbutt, an acute care nurse practitioner from Kitchener, adds: “I have volunteered and worked in a remote village in Kenya, Africa, for the past two summers. If you are in need of my services, please let me know.”

For other RNs, it’s the sense of professional obligation. “If it wasn’t for the fact that I just started a new job yesterday, I would have wanted to be down there right now. I feel guilty that I’m being selfish and starting my new job, but once I put in a couple of months, I would feel better about heading down there,” RN Charis Kelly writes.

But traveling south is not the only way nurses are helping in the relief efforts. Penney Minor, a clinical nurse specialist at Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, is spearheading the collection of goods for transport to Louisiana before the end of September.

“I wanted to help and I can’t go down there so I figured this is one way I can help them,” Minor says, adding that the whole Baycrest organization has been behind her from the beginning. “The first set of boxes we decided to have a mix of everything. It has clothes, medical supplies, scrubs, shoes and toiletries. Once we filled the boxes with supplies, I asked nursing staff to write notes of inspiration to the nurses. We’ve put at least two or three personalized notes at the top of each box.”

The plan was to conduct the drive the week of September 12 but it has been extended for another week because of the overwhelming response. “Some of our staff has also gone outside Baycrest to family and friends,” she says. “My mother brought in a whole shipment from St. Thomas…from the walk-in clinic there…she had a whole van full.”

While Minor and her team offer relief from home, other nurses have been able to take the time off to travel and volunteer on the Gulf Coast. At least two RNAO members headed south in early September; Sarnia RN Bonnie Kearns went through the Canadian Red Cross and Iqaluit RN Marion Willms went through the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi. A third RNAO member from Mississauga, Sally Greenway, will fly out November 7 to spend two weeks volunteering through the Louisiana Department of Health.

“It’s all kind of shocking because (the American people) set the standard for these things,” Kearns told The London Free Press on September 3, adding: “It’s not very often that they have to reach out to the rest of the world for help.” A volunteer immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11, Kearns reflects on the heart-wrenching tales of loss that she will hear. “When you’re doing first aid, you hear all the stories of loss…but the people need to talk and we need to listen,” she said.

To find out more about how to help – whether you’re a nurse, another health-care professional, or a patient – contact: