Disaster Preparedness is Crucial in Nursing Education

Shortly after Hurricane Harvey barreled through southwest Texas, my colleagues and I learned about a nursing program at a Houston-area college that had sustained heavy flooding. Sewage had backed up into the health science building. College officials were unable to reach their buildings. They feared for the safety of their students and had been working frantically to contact them.

Another nursing program in Houston was more fortunate. Their building suffered only some minor window leaks, but it will take days to assess the full impact on many students and faculty who have been evacuated. In the meantime, they are setting up teams to volunteer at shelters.

Natural disasters are every community’s worst nightmare. To date, Hurricane Harvey has led to dozens of deaths, displaced more than 50,000 people, triggered a plant explosion, and caused the shutdown of at least one key oil refinery and the closure of numerous schools and several hospitals. Damage estimates range from $120 billion to more than $160 billion.

The hurricane’s toll on emergency service workers, military personnel, churches, emergency shelters, volunteer groups, and hospitals is well-documented. Some have had to release mothers and newborn babies to emergency shelters.

Less known is the impact of this natural disaster, perhaps the worst in American history, on nursing education in Texas–a state that has grappled with a chronic nursing shortage for years. Hurricane Harvey is having a transformative effect on healthcare and nursing education. Nursing’s reputation as a caring, creative, and “can-do” profession is manifesting itself in this crisis. Many of the state’s nursing programs have teamed up to assess and meet the needs of faculty and students affected by Hurricane Harvey. They are also striving to serve members of the community by dispatching faculty and students to assist disaster victims.

Some nursing schools have offered their facilities to students and faculty from other nursing schools at no cost. In an effort to ensure the uninterrupted education of their students, some nursing programs are devising creative ways to provide online instruction to those remaining in Houston. Some publishers have offered free electronic textbooks to affected students. And nursing programs are using this disaster as a teaching tool to sharpen skills about emergency preparedness.

Over the weekend, as Hurricane Harvey battered the state’s west coast, my colleagues began reaching out to thousands of online nursing students in the disaster to check on their safety and well being.

Our investigation has turned up some moving stories.

One student who works as a nurse at a Houston-area hospital said she’d been at work for several days and would not be leaving for a couple more days because the needs were so great. Her husband and children had fled their home for an emergency shelter; she wasn’t sure which one.

Another-an emergency medical technician-worries about missing his deadline to pay his tuition. His credit union is closed due to the disaster and he can’t make the payment on time. We worked with him.

And one student has taken 18 people into her home. The other day she and her husband, a paramedic, spent hours in the shelters, taking vitals on patients, caring for infants, comforting scared children, feeding the elderly, and working with a woman in active labor.

Our faculty has been scrambling to accommodate students affected by this disaster. Several have adjusted their syllabi to allow students take certain portions of their classes that require their presence at a clinical facility online.

It will be months, perhaps even years, before the full impact of Hurricane Harvey is known.

But those of us in the health education space are already learning some important lessons. One of these lessons is rooted in trends over the last 40 years. Since 1975, the number of natural disasters has more than quadrupled, according to the World Health Organization. That fact alone reinforces the need to make disaster preparedness an important part of nursing education. It also highlights the need for nursing educators to nimbly respond to rapidly changing situations wrought by natural disasters and seek ways to incorporate them into the curriculum.

And the biggest lesson of all: we as healthcare professionals and educators will get through this.

And we’ll come through it stronger than ever.

Anne Bavier is dean of the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at the University of Texas at Arlington and President of the National League for Nursing.

Posted in Expert Opinions.