On two hours’ notice and without knowing what they would face, 13 nurses from Christus Health System in eastern Texas boarded a plane bound for San Antonio on Aug. 25 to help colleagues deal with Hurricane Harvey’s wrath.
With many Christus facilities located in southern and eastern Texas and Louisiana, multiple sites were affected by the hurricane. When nursing leadership at Christus St. Michael Health System heard reports of NICU babies and other patients being transferred from stricken areas to San Antonio, Louise Thornell, MSN, MSBA, RN, NE-BC, VP/CNO at Christus St. Michael asked, “How can we help?” The answer: “We need nurses.”
Immediately nurse leaders at St. Michael reached out to their staff. Response came from many departments, including the ED, ICU and med/surg.
Two hours later, nurses including Kelli Thompson, BSN, RN, WCC, SCRN, a clinical coordinator of outpatient services for IV Infusion/Wound Care at the Atlanta campus, boarded the 13-seat plane in Texarkana, bound for San Antonio.
“Nurses took that huge leap of faith and got on the plane without knowing how long they’d be gone or what they would be doing,” Thornell said.
The Texarkana nurses arrived in San Antonio hours before Hurricane Harvey made landfall. “There wasn’t much time to think or plan,” Thompson said. “I went home, threw some clothes in a bag, got what I thought was needed for a couple of days, and left.”
By the time the 13 RNs from St. Michael arrived and were deployed to the Christus San Antonio Medical Center and Christus Santa Rose New Braunsfel hospital, 70 patients already had been transferred out of the hurricane’s path; 40 more followed.
Thompson found herself working the night shift in New Braunsfel, assisting staff nurses with whatever was needed in the MICU. “We helped with admissions, started IVs, cleaned up patients,” said Thompson. “We did whatever they needed us to do.”
Thompson said she and fellow volunteers primarily worked in the MICU, a step-down unit and a medical telemetry floor. “They had patients who were very sick and needed a lot of care.”
Normally they had 20 to 22 patients on the floor, Thompson said. “One night we had 33 patients. It was a big difference from what they were used to,” she said.
Micah Johnson, MSN, RN, director of nursing at Christus St. Michael Hospital-Atlanta, also responded to the call for volunteers.
“I mainly filled supportive type roles in the ICU, like turning patients, taking vital signs and relieving nurses for their breaks,” Johnson said. “We all went with the mindset that we’d do whatever they needed done.”
The volunteer nurses, who were paid their regular rate for time worked, slept in empty patient rooms on hospital beds and cots. None had specific disaster relief experience; some hadn’t worked at the bedside for a while.
Johnson said he and fellow volunteers noticed that patients who had been transferred to New Braunsfel from outside of the area noticeably lacked the support of family. Caring for these patients was especially meaningful, he said.
In whatever circumstances they encountered, Thompson said the mood was positive as volunteers and staff nurses worked side by side.
“The nurses who were based there were wonderful and very appreciative of us being there,” Thompson said.
Some slept over at the hospital with the volunteer workers, concerned that the possibility of local flooding could prevent them from returning for their shift the following day.
During their four days of serving, Thompson said patients often mentioned their gratitude to the volunteers. Though the duties performed were often simple, she said the volunteers knew they were making a difference.
“One patient hadn’t had a bath in several days and really wanted a shower, but she was too weak. So I told her I would bathe her in bed,” Thompson said. “Afterward, she told me she felt like a totally different person. It was a small thing, but in the big picture I was able to make this lady feel wonderful.”
For Johnson, “the biggest take away was the involvement of nurses. It was nice to see nurses come together. When we got there the nurses there had open arms; they were very appreciative, very humbled at our coming.”
Thornell considers this experience one that exemplifies the Christus health system’s mission “to extend the healing ministry of Jesus Christ.”
“[The mission] wasn’t fulfilled only by those who went as volunteers. We also recognize the contributions of those who didn’t travel,” she said. “They had to back fill the shifts and manage patients left by the nurses who traveled.”
Both Thompson and Johnson would accept disaster relief opportunities again. “It was a very humbling situation,” said Thompson, who is enrolled in a nurse practitioner program, adding that this experience has prompted her to consider future mission work. “It made a real impact on my life, maybe more than I’ll ever know.”
Pictured in top photo: Christus St. Michael nurses Toni Radford, BSN, RN, and Jessi Self, BSN, RN, discuss plans as they prepare to travel to San Antonio.
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