Praise for Haiti Nurse Volunteers–And a Word of Caution

January 21, 2010

Shawn Kennedy, MA, RN, interim editor-in-chief

International Rescue Committee Web site

As has happened many times before, nurses have stepped up to the plate in volunteering their services in the wake of the devastating Haitian earthquake. The California Nurses Association reported several days ago on its Web site that nearly 7,500 nurses had responded to a call by National Nurses United for volunteers. Nurses are also integral in the ranks of Médecins Sans Frontières , the International Rescue Committee, federal disaster response teams, and of course the American Red Cross.

What nurses should not do is take it upon themselves to fly to Haiti without being connected to an organized disaster group. Independent volunteers can create more problems and end up becoming consumers of disaster services instead of providers. As we noted in an AJN news article shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks, “Because of the potential for injuries on site and subsequent health problems and stress syndromes, it’s essential that personnel location and hours spent at the scene be carefully monitored. Proper disaster management safeguards the lives of both victims and rescuers.”

Many first responders to the September 11 attacks subsequently developed respiratory problems; many suffered from depression. Many of these people had access to health care and counseling because they were monitored and registered and periodically assessed for postevent sequelae. But there were many “ad hoc” volunteers, who just showed up, without equipment, disaster training, or support. One wonders how many of these laudable volunteers suffered from subsequent PTSD.

Resource Compilation for Nurses Who Want to Help

So, if you feel driven to go to Haiti to help (as opposed to making a monetary donation), go with a bona fide group. (Nurses at the University of Maryland School of Nursing have a site listing organizations involved in the relief effort.) Make sure you have the skills and emotional makeup necessary to be of help. Here’s something from that 2001 news article that’s worth repeating: “Eileen Hanley, MBA, RN, is director of Supportive Care at Saint Vincent’s Medical Center in Manhattan, one of the hospitals that received many of the injured, including many rescue workers. She warns that when disaster ends, bereavement begins, and those planning disaster assistance must be sure to include mental health services for rescue workers and hospital workers as well as for victims.”

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  1. Regardless of the problems that volunteer nurses have caused, their response is still plausible. I think authorities can set up men to organize this volunteers in the disaster areas so as to make use of these volunteers at the max and not as headaches. And they too, must coordinate with organizers, especially if they jumped to help at the the moment they saw the need of medical aid; as some may already be in the area and just can’t bear standing while seeing victims cry for help.


  2. There is a big difference between: 1) going into an area that is underserved and providing medical humanitarian aid Vs 2) going into an area where there has been a disaster and providing disaster medical services – In #1, you can usually purchase your own food, etc. at the location without taking from the locals provisions and you may be, infact, adding to their economy. In #2, plan to go in with all provisions including food, water purifers,tents, etc becasue in a disaster these provisions are either unavailable or scarce and taking from the community takes from the people.
    There are multiple differences, the point being, go into a disaster as part of the solution and don’t become part of the problem.


  3. Very well said Shawn! It’s admirable that many nurses are willing to donate their professional services, but we must also do it in the most effective and safe way possible.


  4. Nurses are notorious for helping other and forgetting to take care of themselves. Thanks for the reminder!


  5. […] a similar note, Shawn Kennedy writes a post giving Praise for Haiti Nurse Volunteers – and a Word of Caution. Important info, to be found at the American Journal of Nursing’s blog Off the […]


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