The 2017 hurricane season went down in history as one of the costliest and deadliest on record. September was the single busiest month of hurricane activity ever documented, according to the Weather Channel. Three named storms—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—caused widespread devastation across the Caribbean, the Florida Keys, and Texas. Hurricane Maria was the worst natural disaster the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico has ever seen, leaving the island in a state of ruin and desolation. The electrical grid was demolished, roads were impassable, and over a million people were homeless and lacking access to food and safe drinking water.
The immediate medical emergency in Puerto Rico was staggering. People injured during the storm could not receive care because hospitals were closed or without power. People managing chronic conditions faced a life-or-death crisis without access to medication or refrigeration for insulin supplies. Without electricity, hospitals could not use x-ray machines, dialysis equipment, or electronic medical records. Without clean water, unsanitary conditions raised the spectre of disease and epidemics.
Almost immediately, nurses mobilized to offer disaster relief in Puerto Rico.
National Nurses United (NNU), the largest professional union for nurses in the U.S. recruited volunteers from its Registered Nurse Response Network (RNRN), according to a press release issued by the organization. Other nursing unions stepped up as well. CBS News reported that 40 nurses from the New York State Nurses Association traveled to Puerto Rico on a privately funded chartered flight; many took time off work to volunteer in the aid effort. Multiple news reports told these nurses’ stories of visiting remote areas to offer comfort and nursing care to people with few resources, and finding children and the elderly suffering from hunger and dehydration.
Some of these nurse volunteers returned home to become staunch advocates for the people they left behind in Puerto Rico, calling for more aid from the U.S. government and even testifying before Congress about the public health crisis unfolding in P.R. From a nursing perspective, it was clear that the lack of electricity and clean water was causing preventable illness, complications of chronic conditions, and death—more people died in the aftermath of the hurricane than as a direct result of the storm.
Nurses volunteering in the wake of a natural disaster is not a new phenomenon. According to the NNU:
RNRN volunteer nurses have cared for thousands of patients during disaster relief and humanitarian assistance deployments that include the South Asian tsunami (2004); Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005); the massive earthquake in Haiti, and Typhoon Haiyan, among other disasters.
If you’re a nurse who would like to become involved in disaster relief, check with the American Red Cross for volunteer opportunities, or look at the other organizations listed in this blog post. Volunteerism is a powerful form of patient advocacy—and true advocacy goes beyond advocating for the needs of the patients currently under your personal care. While nurses have an individual responsibility to advocate for individual patients, they also have the ethical responsibility to approach broader advocacy issues as a united group of nursing professionals.
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