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Reflections of a Katrina nurse

The Courier-Journal, 3/30/07

Reflections of a Katrina nurse
By Susan Levitan, RN
The Courier-Journal
March 30, 2007

Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster.

What we did to the residents of the Gulf Coast affected by Hurricane Katrina was a man-made disaster.

I know this is true because I saw it, and that's why I am banding together with nurses across the nation to form RNRN: the Registered Nurse Response Network. We are committed to making sure nothing like this ever happens in our country again.

In the weeks after Katrina and Rita hit, my offers to volunteer my skills as a registered nurse were ignored time after time. There was a lack of coordination between agencies, just as there was no public health system in place, and there was no fall-back in the almost certain likelihood of a major natural disaster.

Worst of all, many of the people hardest hit by Katrina were more vulnerable because their health had already been compromised by years of neglect from the health care industry that exists in this country. (I hestitate to call it a health care system, because it's not a system.) It's easy to find statistics about how the United States is 37th in the world in providing health care, but much more difficult to come face to face with the people who suffer as a result.

Ask yourself -- would the citizens of Canada or Australia or Germany have been so miserably failed by their nation's health care systems in the event of a similar disaster? Of course not.

This callous disregard of our nation's health care carried over to the response to the hurricane. Registered nurses are trained to react to disasters and provide hands-on, front-line care. RNs from across the country tried to sign up and help -- it should have been easy enough. Except, the Red Cross didn't respond. FEMA wouldn't respond. None of the state agencies, public or private, thought that the skills of an RN might help the victims of the disasters.

Finally, I was placed in New Orleans through the good graces of fellow RNs who make up the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee. They experienced the same problems I had: Their members wanted to volunteer for Katrina, but no one would take them.

So, CNA/NNOC, a professional nurses organization not normally in the disaster-relief business, worked to directly place nurses in 25 over-stressed public hospitals, triage clinics and other facilities throughout Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. All told, they placed over 300 RNs who cared for tens of thousands of patients, and earned themselves a nickname: "California Angels." They delivered "Katrina babies," identified the trauma syndrome that many patients will struggle with for years to come, and for two months provided over half of the staff of Baton Rouge's Earl K. Long Memorial Hospital.

The nurses who journeyed to the aftermath of Katrina routinely call the experience things like "life-changing," "transformative" and, also, "devastating." From this experience was born RNRN -- the Registered Nurse Response Network.

RNRN will serve as a national nurse-coordinating agency in future disaster areas. It will provide the transportation, housing and facility; in return, the nurse provides her expertise and heart. It's a perfect match.

RNRN has an even broader mission: to fight for fundamental change to our nation's health care system. We really have only two options: continue with the current system, tweaking it here or there, or make the leap to the kind of universal, single-payer system that works in every other developed nation on earth. Think of it as Medicare for All.

The first option has failed, and the public wants change. It's time to move to the system that's been proven to work time and time again. A coordinated, improved health system is necessary for this country to be ready to react to natural disasters. A genuine universal health care system will include planning for disaster preparedness, response and recovery -- the opposite of what we saw after Katrina.

Nurses can't prevent natural disasters, but we can help prevent man-made ones. That's why we're joining together to be ready the next time disaster strikes, and working to make sure our health care system is ready, too.

Susan Levitan, R.N., is a nurse with 20 years' experience at a Louisville hospital.

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