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Penn Nursing Students Part of Hurricane Relief Effort

Pheobe Askie, a senior nursing student at the University of Pennsylvania, worries about Joe*, the college student who has nightmares when it rains. She also worries about Mary*, who realizes she has symptoms of depression but won’t seek help.

Both are victims of Hurricane Katrina whom Askie met as part of the Penn in the Gulf Feldman Initiative in Pearlington, Miss.

“Almost three years after the hurricane, people in this small town are still suffering,” says Askie.

In the path of the storm

Penn Nursing students (from left) Stephanie Ng, Sofia Wronski, Anne-Marie Beitler, Pheobe Askie, Gina McShea, Alexis Kalman, and Danielle Klosiewicz hosted a Health Fair in Hancock County, Miss., an area that is still recovering nearly three years after Hurricane Katrina.

Pearlington, a small community in Hancock County, 40 miles east of New Orleans, took a direct hit when Katrina pounded the town. The hurricane’s eye sucked up water, spewing out 30-foot waves that surged to the shore of this Gulf town, wiping out most of what was in its path. Volunteer efforts from across the country are beginning to make some headway to resurrect the town, which seemed in danger of disappearing.

For 11 days in January, 32 UPenn students and faculty joined forces to lend a hand, including seven from the School of Nursing (SON), 10 from the School of Social Policy and Practice (SP2), two from Engineering and Applied Science, and three from Dental Medicine.

The initiative’s long-term goal is to produce a disaster-relief model that can be replicated by volunteers from universities across the country.

Answering the call

“When the call came from SP2 for collaborative efforts in the Gulf area, I saw it as a great opportunity for students to experience a unique professional nursing leadership opportunity firsthand,” says Julie Sochalski, RN, PhD, associate professor of nursing. “Senior students would have the chance to bring together all the many elements of clinical practice they’ve learned over their years and put them into practice in a post-disaster community with unique needs.”

“Healthcare issues that existed pre-Katrina worsened after the storm,” says Norma Cuellar, RN, DSN, assistant professor, who joined the students and Sochalski on their trip to Pearlington.

The residents had high risk factors for health problems, including heart attacks, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, and stroke, as well as obesity and diabetes. These were made worse by a lack of access to care and health status and further complicated by the stress of the disaster, says Cuellar.

Working together

Students from the SON and SP2 canvassed the town, going door- to-door to assess residents’ needs and listen to their stories about the hurricane.

“Nursing students were enriched by the interaction with students from the other disciplines,” says Sochalski, who saw the collaboration as a novel clinical experience through which the goals and outcomes of multidisciplinary teamwork could be taught.

The students pooled their talents to plan and conduct a free health fair that attracted more than 300 people. Dental students provided dental screenings. Nursing students conducted blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose screenings, did health teaching, and gave referrals to other healthcare and social service resources. SP2 students conducted compassionate listening sessions and mental-health screenings. Engineering students tested the well-water supply for contamination.

An advanced practice nurse was available to consult and assist with referrals for additional medical attention. Hancock County organizations were invited to set up tables at the fair, where they provided consultations and referrals to healthcare, social, and community resources.

The University of Southern Mississippi’s Schools of Social Work and Nursing, Hancock Medical Center, and the Pearlington Recovery Center partnered with the University of Pennsylvania for the health fair.

Lessons learned

Each evening, nursing students wrote about their experiences in their journals. “The objective was to identify problems we were seeing … and come up with ideas for possible solutions,” says Askie. The students also chronicled their days in Mississippi in a blog, which is still available online at

“Things are getting better slowly, but it’s a long process and the needs are still great,” she says. Many people have physical problems, lack insurance, and can’t afford medical care. Some are forced to deliberate about whether to purchase medications or use their money to repair their homes.

“This relief effort has caused me to rethink the direction of my future nursing career from global work to work including community-oriented care at home,” Askie says.

*Name has been changed

By | 2020-04-15T15:24:36-04:00 April 21st, 2008|Categories: Philadelphia/Tri-State, Regional|0 Comments

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