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Nursing group ready to send volunteers to scenes of disaster

Rocky Mountain News, 2/8/07

By John C. Ensslin
Rocky Mountain News
February 8, 2007

Doug Smith, a registered nurse at Swedish Hospital, remembers getting annoyed as he watched the official response to Hurricane Katrina.

"I couldn't believe that the government acted like it didn't know what was going on," he said.

If there had been an organization set up to send nurses to the scene of a natural disaster to lend direct help, Smith, 57, said he might have asked to take leave from his job and gone to New Orleans to help.

"That's a possibility," he said.

Now there is such an organization, and when the next disaster strikes Smith might be one of the professionals tapped to help.

RN Response Network is a California-based group organizing registered nurses nationwide in preparation for a disaster response. The group held an informational session Wednesday for several local nurses in Denver.

The group was formed by the California Nurses Association in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita when it helped send about 300 nurses to hospitals in the Gulf Coast, said Bonnie Martin, a nurse practitioner from Stockton, Calif., and a CNA board member. The effort cost about $150,000, funded through private donations that included airline tickets and lodging.

That operation was put together on the spur of the moment, Martin said, but many nurses were frustrated by delays over out-of-state licenses and logistics.

Martin said the aim of the group is to do more than what traditional relief agencies such as the American Red Cross are able to provide.

Red Cross nurses can provide first aid, education and referrals. Her group seeks to put nurses directly in emergency rooms where they could provide relief and assistance for local professionals.

After Katrina, "we replaced nurses in hospitals who had been working 30 hours straight," Martin recalled.

So far the group has organized 4,000 volunteers nationwide, including 100 in Colorado. The group's Web site is calnurses .org/rnrn/.

Belinda Hamilton, a retired psychiatric nurse from Centennial who formerly worked at the Stout Street Clinic, said she volunteered after hearing a talk about post-traumatic stress disorders among people who survived Katrina.

Working with homeless patients at Stout Street convinced her she could do the same sort of work with people made homeless by disaster.

"I think there's a lot you can do, psych-wise," she said.

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