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November 10, 2005

Thoughts on Serving: Two Weeks as a Post-Hurricane Volunteer

It is Tuesday, October 4, 2005 at 4:00 pm.  As is a normal day at home, I am juggling homework with my children, attempting to make something edible for dinner, balance the PTO checkbook for the next meeting, and get ready for a night at work. Naturally, the phone begins to ring.

I reluctantly answer, while thinking up an excuse for what seems like the 10th telemarketer that day.  To my surprise it is Lieutenant Commander Pellen, with the Office of the Surgeon General!  Can I still help with a medical relief mission being organized for the Gulf Coast?

Never in a million years did I think they would actually call, after so many people stepped forward to volunteer.

Well, 36 hours later, I am on a flight headed to
Louisiana, home to the devastating aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  Though I am traveling alone and a little (okay, a lot), frightened by what I have signed myself up for this time, I am also excited to be participating in this effort.

After processing my paperwork, and a night of sleeping on a cot in a tent with 100 other volunteers at "tent city," in Baton Rouge, I find myself being sent not to a hospital or medical center like I had originally thought, but to a special needs shelter for evacuees.  What do I know about "special needs"?  I'm a cardiology nurse with a 4 or 5:1 ratio, not 40:1 in a large gym!!! 

Well, I quickly realize that living and working in a disaster shelter, everything I had done for years under hospital regulations was history.  In these situations and time of need you work with what you have and pray for the best.  There are no sinks in every room, but strategically placed hand sanitizer amongst rows of cots where people are "living."  No charts, but alphabetized folders placed in an egg crate.  No pyxis or med cart, but a makeshift pharmacy in a storage closet, and your patient's meds are kept in a plastic bag, then stored in a Craftsman toolbox. (Yikes!) Flexibility and team work become your motto.

What helped me through those two weeks was not only the amazing attitudes of the evacuees, so positive and thankful, but for the many other volunteers I was lucky enough to meet and work with.  Forty seven states across the country were represented while I was there, with volunteers from all different medical areas and expertise, from clergy, fire fighters, paramedics, National Guardsman, Red Cross workers, Public Health Service officers, to many, many more.  What an incredible group of individuals.

Helping the evacuees with their medical needs, finding family members or friends to take them in, or just listening when they needed to talk, whether about the uncertain future or their stories of survival, is an experience I will never forget.

After an emotionally and physically exhausting two weeks of sleeping on a cot myself, using outdoor bathrooms and showers, and eating less than appetizing food on most days, I was glad to be headed back to the comforts of home and family.

I would never wish for another catastrophe such as this to happen, but I encourage everyone to experience this life-changing journey if ever given the chance.  It is true what they say about not appreciating what you have until it's gone. Never again will I take for granted the things in my life.  Not just monetary things like a home, car, a good job, but especially my family and friends here, and the ones I left behind in Louisiana.

I feel truly blessed to have each and every one in my life, and extremely fortunate to have been a part of an amazing experience of nursing in the face of disaster.

Melissa Bless, RN


November 10, 2005 in Hurricane Katrina: Nurses and NPs Help | Permalink


I just read your blog about working at the Region 2 MSNS at LSU in Baton Rouge. Having been the medical director of it for several years prior to and during Katrina and Rita I'd like to thank you and everyone else who came to assist us during those trying times.

W P Cain MD

PS: So did ya like the Craftsman "pharmacy" cart?

Posted by: W P Cain MD | Jun 13, 2007 4:46:37 PM

How does one become a relief medical/health worker?

Posted by: Sue Finch Brown | Aug 23, 2006 11:12:24 AM

Although I did not assist with hurricane relief this year, I have done so multiple times in the past; Huricanes Opal, Georges and Andrew. I agree that they were eye opening and a real life experience not to be missed. You are called upon to use all of your skills that you learned as a nurse, mostly without the equipment or resources that you are familiar with. Some of the issues that we encountered at that time were addressed at out de-briefing and were used to plan the next disaster responses. I was placed in a shelter for one night in Miami but the next day, a nurse practitioner and myself were given a Health Dept. van/driver and turned loose with basic care & treatment guidelines. There was a tremendous learning curve. If you ever have the opportunity to do relief medical/health work, DO IT. You will love it and gain a whole new perspective on the human spirit and nursing.

Posted by: Marie Harper | Jan 26, 2006 1:51:20 PM

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