Like other busy emergency department nurses, Laura Prestidge and her colleagues have many daily challenges on the job — from long hours to staffing shortages and a steady stream of patients.
But Prestidge, BSN, RN, pediatric preparedness coordinator in the ED at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Chicago, faced one of her greatest tests when she and a team of nurses from the Chicago area and other parts of Illinois volunteered in Louisiana in the days following Hurricane Katrina.
“It really put a lot of things in perspective,” Prestidge said. “Every day, it was a challenging environment like nothing I’ve seen before or since. But we adapted, we got by and really made a difference.”
For more than a decade, Prestidge has volunteered statewide with the Illinois Medical Emergency Response Team. Founded in 1999, IMERT exists to lend a hand to local medical professionals in Illinois and elsewhere in the country in the event of natural or manmade disaster, said IMERT Executive Director Mary Connelly, BSN, RN.
Care after a disaster
Boasting more than 600 medical professionals, including 146 nurses on its roster of volunteers, IMERT can make a difference in communities hit hard by massive severe weather events or human-caused events resulting in widespread damage.
But Connelly and her fellow IMERT nurses are quick to correct anyone who wishes to describe them as “first responders,” such as EMS workers or paramedics.
“We’re not EMS,” said Connelly. “Our primary role is to assist with medical care for those whose medical system has become paralyzed or perhaps even been destroyed. Once the first responders manage the disaster, it comes back to people needing nursing care.”
Funded by state and federal grants and operated under the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, IMERT has since 2003 trained with first responders and medical organizations across the state for a variety of scenarios, Connelly said.
Nurses and the other volunteers regularly participate in exercises, simulating acts of terrorism, hazardous material spills, disease outbreaks, earthquakes, severe storms, tornados and other disasters.
Their training has translated into a number of actual deployments, such as assisting hospitals and medical teams working amid major floods in Quincy, Ill., in 2008 and a heat crisis in Chicago in 2006, and administering vaccinations to address a hepatitis A outbreak around Rock Island, Ill., in 2009.
The team also has been deployed to stand by in case of problems at major public events such as President Barack Obama’s election night gathering in Grant Park in November 2008 or the Chicago NATO Summit in 2012.
Pressed into action
The team’s purpose was never more apparent than in its response following Hurricane Katrina. In late August 2005, when it became apparent hospitals in and around New Orleans could not handle the demand for the acute or chronic medical needs of its population, the federal government issued a call for nurses to assist, and the IDPH and IEMA dispatched IMERT.
Prestidge, Connelly and Barbara Oliff, BSN, RN, were among the nurses who were deployed for two weeks each to assist at Ochsner Medical Center in Baton Rouge.
Oliff, who now serves as an emergency preparedness educator at NorthShore University Health System, had volunteered with IMERT since 2001, after learning of the group at a presentation she attended while working as an ED nurse. “Disaster medicine became my passion,” Oliff said.
After Hurricane Katrina, Oliff said the volunteer nurses were pressed into service doing all sorts of tasks.
“We were drawing blood, making beds, whatever was needed,” she said. “All of the ancillary staff was gone, either because they’d been evacuated or just had to take care of their lives.”
Despite the challenges, an event like Katrina only reinforced a belief in the mission for IMERT staff and volunteer nurses. They said the experiences allowed them not only to help where it was needed most, but also to adjust IMERT’s own disaster planning.
“Everybody learned how to be more prepared,” Oliff said.
Marge Luczak, MSN, RN, EMT-B, who retired from full-time nursing eight years ago after a 50-year career, has continued to serve in IMERT, participating in various deployments since joining the organization almost from its inception.
“I love emergency medicine,” said Luczak, who previously worked as an EMS coordinator at the former Our Lady of the Resurrection Hospital, Chicago, and worked 38 years as an ED nurse.
Luczak said she’s still as committed to the group’s mission as she was when she first joined.
“The whole thing is that we want to help nurses who have been affected by disasters, too,” she said. “We arrive, and say, ‘Your home is gone, go do what you need. Let us take care of your patients.’”