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Into the Alabama Tornado Zone: First Dispatches from a Red Cross Volunteer

May 6, 2011
Last summer, Susan Hassmiller, PhD, RN, FAAN, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Senior Adviser for Nursing, wrote a series of posts for this blog as she spent her summer vacation  retracing the steps of Florence Nightingale in England and Turkey. Now she’s gone to Alabama as a Red Cross volunteer in the wake of a series of devastating tornadoes. You can read Susan’s daily on-the-go entries here. The accounts from the first two days—of her family’s history with the Red Cross in other disasters, and of arriving and settling in to less-than-ideal sleeping arrangements—are below. New updates (some of it quite moving and disturbing) will soon follow, and all updates will be collected on a separate page for easy reference.—Jacob Molyneux, senior editor/blog editor
Sue Hassmiller

Monday, May 2: Duty calls
I have been involved with the Red Cross for 36 years now, ever since the organization helped me find my parents when they were victims of an earthquake while vacationing in Mexico City. It was the day my parents made it home safely that I made a silent pledge to myself that I would find a way to repay my gratitude to this wonderful organization. As a young nurse, I signed up with the Red Cross in my college town of Tallahassee. I went on quite a few disasters in my single days, but these days, with all my job and family responsibilities, the real hands-on work comes infrequently. I am torn to be leaving those responsibilities now, and especially on Mother’s Day, when I will be missing being with my own mother and my own (grown) children who will tell me that they are happy and proud to have me as their mother.

And I will cherish those words as always, but I do think of the hundreds of people affected in this disaster who have lost their mothers forever, or the mothers who lost their children, and I think perhaps for a short two weeks of my life I might find some way to help them. That is my desire.

Tuesday, May 3: First night in the disaster shelter
I am at work for the last day before leaving, and feel so grateful that I work for an organization (the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) that supports their employees in giving back to their community and country in this way. They have always been this way. I have worked there for 14 years and in that time have spent time away during 9/11, Katrina, the Indonesian tsunami, the four hurricanes that hit Florida at the same time, hurricane Floyd in NJ, and now this monster in Alabama that has no name. I don’t serve this way often, but every once in a while there is something so significant that I can’t ignore it.

I think part of my going has to do with the need so close to where I live. The Japan event got so much attention and I am glad that the American Red Cross was able to help and Americans emptied their wallets for another country in need . . . but this is our country and our people. It hasn’t received the level of attention or financial support that Japan received, yet the human needs are just as great. I’m glad that Alabama is just a two-hour plane ride away and soon I will be part of the same organization that helped me with my own crisis 36 years ago. My outcome was positive, but I have already been briefed that this disaster is as bad as Katrina, with death and destruction as far as the eye can see.

When I arrive at the Birmingham airport late at night I am grateful to see a group of 10 Red Cross volunteers who have just come in from another plane, grateful because a young man from England (now living in LA) has offered to cart me to my sleeping quarters for the night and I don’t have to find where I am going on my own.

We are told that we are to go to Samford University for our accommodations. In another time, I would no doubt think that Samford University is indeed a beautiful place, but on this evening, now after midnight and having just been led to the gymnasium where hundreds of cots lie before me, albeit cots filled with humanitarian souls, I’m a bit less than enthused.

I’m not such a young person anymore and to be told that the bathroom is in another part of the building (and not next to my bed!!) is a bit disconcerting. But when I remind myself of why I am here and why these hundreds of people are here and why I’m sleeping on a cot next to men and women who are strangers, and the bathroom oh so far away, it’s pretty bearable. And yes, I had to make the trek at around 3 am to the other part of the building….

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5 comments

  1. Hello Sue,

    I volunteered at the American Red Cross for three years before deciding it was time to clock in. I enjoy working for this organization and involve my seven year old son every year to volunteer with me. Today I am celebrating six years of clocking in. I love my job and what ARC does every day. I have decided to become a nurse though a little later in life than I would have liked, but better late than never right? I look forward to all the years to come that I will volunteer and give back, and it was great reading all that you wrote. I am so grateful that there are people like you out there.
    Jennifer in Portland, Oregon

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  2. Dear Pattie Mayher: I am sorry you did not get to be with us, but they still need you. They keep finding more people who need help! Thanks for your kind words. Sue

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  3. Thanks to Tener for her kind words. She has a couple of award winning books on Disaster Nursing. I told a number of people on the disaster site about the books. She has also created an on line disaster course for nurses called “Ready RN.” You should take a look.
    Sue Hassmiller

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  4. Sue,
    This was a wonderful update and thank you so much for your ongoing service and dedication to the American Red Cross! It is an amazing organization that is always there, in every community whenever it is needed. You are a fabulous leader and continue to be a role model for us all. The need has never been greater for nurses to work together to better prepare ourselves for the next disaster that will come on US soil. Tener Veenema

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  5. Sue,
    I am proud that you are serving in this way. I too am a red cross volunteer and a hospice home care nurse from Cleveland Ohio area. I was very close to being deployed but at the last minute could not go due to colleages being off and the length of time for service. Oh how I long to go! Someday I will. thinking of you and thank you , Pattie RN CHPN

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