A Nurse’s Calling
Texas and Louisiana had just experienced the wrath of Hurricane Harvey when Leesa Souza, a registered nurse and student in Walden’s Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Family Nurse Practitioner specialization, traveled from her home in Hawaii to Georgia to meet the rest of her Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT). The team—which can include nurses, physician assistants, certified first responders, psychologists, and lay people to perform communications and logistics—drove to Orlando, Florida, where they waited for Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, to hit the Florida Keys.
“In Orlando, we connected with federal agents and drove to the Keys as a convoy so we could set up a field hospital and care for people immediately after the storm. We arrived the day after Irma made landfall and quickly tried to create order among the chaos.” There were no forklifts, so the 5-foot critical care nurse and her team worked 18-hour days in humid 105-degree weather unloading heavy medical equipment to create the only working hospital in the Keys. There was no electricity or running water, which meant no showers, working toilets, or washing machines.
According to Souza, there was also only one doctor who remained on the islands and he was functioning around the clock in limited capacity. “It’s typical after storms for people to have injuries, and there are also acute issues such as infection, chest pain, respiratory illnesses, lacerations, as well as people running out of medication or in need of dialysis,” Souza said. Members of the DMAT team set up the field hospital, but the team is also capable of breaking up into smaller strike teams to go into the field and address immediate urgent care needs, including intubation, chest needle decompression, IV hydration, and stabilizing residents.
Joining the federal emergency response team was an easy decision for Souza, whose first deployment was after Hurricane Sandy. A 24-year nursing veteran, she splits her time working between two of Hawaii’s islands, Oahu and Molokai, a small rural area of just 6,500 people that often has to evacuate patients to another island due to limited healthcare access. “After watching two huge catastrophes, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, I felt this larger calling to serve. I didn’t know exactly how until I was working in the emergency room in Oahu and we had a drill for disaster management. There was a phone number on the back of a paper from the training exercise and I just knew this was it.”
When Souza was told of the deployment for Irma, she wondered how she could possibly go because she was working full time and going to school. “But, then I thought, what is the purpose of getting your degree if not to help when there is a medical need? It’s a real passion to help people, so turning my back on a crisis like this was not an option,” Souza said. Her daughter, who had just arrived from Texas, also encouraged her to go.
Before leaving, Souza notified Dr. Annaliza Villena, faculty member in the School of Nursing, of her deployment. “She also told me to do what I needed to do and be safe. It meant a lot to have her support. It’s one thing for Walden to provide an education, but a whole other thing to support a value system.”
Souza wasn’t the only member of the Walden community helping in the wake of Irma. “I’m standing in a meeting with the new team we’re turning over the field hospital to and a nurse practitioner starts asking me questions about the equipment. It turns out he’s a Walden graduate from the same program I’m in now,” she said. Souza watched how competent he was working in the field and how he cared for people, which helped affirm her decision to pursue her degree with Walden to provide preventive medical care to the remote residents of Molokai.
Souza was in the Keys for a little over a week. Deployments can last up to 2 weeks, and some teams were extended to 3 weeks because of the severity of the storms. Team members are from all over the country and provide a wide array of skill sets for urgent and non-urgent needs. “Every deployment is different. We installed showers in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and we helped resuscitate a dog in the Keys because there was no veterinarian on the island. You’re forced to break out of your limitations and learn quickly to adapt and do what needs to be done.”
She says the experience can be intense, but it creates a lifelong bond for DMAT members. “Every team is in desperate need of healthcare professionals with the same heart for serving,” she says. “If everyone could do what they can do, our resources would go so far.”
To learn more about becoming a member of a DMAT team, visit the Public Health Emergency website.—Jen Raider