By Susan B. Hassmiller, PhD, RN, FAAN, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) senior advisor for nursing, and director, Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action, American Red Cross volunteer national ambassador. (Second post of ongoing Clara Barton Study Tour series.)
The ‘Red Cross lady’ on the phone.
Earthquake hits Mexico City! said the news flash on my television screen 40 years ago as I sat in my childhood home. I was a college student, house-sitting for my parents, who were in Mexico City for a long-deserved vacation.
I had no idea what to do. There were no cell phones in those days, no Internet. I hurried to the yellow rotary phone on the wall at the end of the kitchen cabinets and dialed 0 for the operator. I implored her help. She said she couldn’t help me, but would connect me to an organization that could. It was the American Red Cross.
The “Red Cross lady” on the phone calmed me down and and over the next several hours was able to report to me that there were no casualties. My parents, she assured me, were in a hotel that was unharmed, but they wouldn’t be able to reach me until electricity and phone service could be restored.
Within a few days my parents returned home. It was time to return to college, but first I went to visit the local Red Cross in Tallahassee, Florida, where I was going to school. In my youthful idealism and gratefulness for help in finding my parents, I assured the chapter manager that I was theirs to use in service forevermore.
The Red Cross may have helped me locate my parents, but more importantly, they’d helped the people in earthquake-damaged Mexico City. I was to learn that this is what they do: help people during disasters of all kinds, and make sure that all help is given impartially.
I have been a volunteer with the Red Cross for over 40 years; it’s never ceased to amaze me what this international infrastructure of staff and volunteers can do for people, whether disasters are man-made or natural. They will always help to put the pieces back together for people, no matter their race, faith, or background. The Red Cross international principles guide everything they do:
- Voluntary service
Delving into Red Cross origins and the work being done today.
Now, 40 years in, my thirst to learn about the man (Henri Dunant) who started the international Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland, and the woman (Clara Barton) who started the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C., has not been quenched. I want to know about everything they went through to bring these organizations into being. I also want to better understand the historical context of their stories, both of which originated in some ways in their experiences of war. And then of course I want to see the full scope of what these organizations are doing for people these days.
For this reason, and because of many wonderful personal connections within the Red Cross, I decided to put together a journey that will help answer my questions. Though I partly wanted to put the Clara Barton Study Tour together for myself and my husband Bob (also a long-time Red Cross volunteer, who I told 37 years ago that he couldn’t date me unless he committed to also serving as a Red Cross volunteer), I also wanted to share this incredible journey with as many others as possible.
The tour will take us to a number of relevant spots in Washington, D.C. (Sept. 26 to Oct. 1), and Geneva (Oct. 1 to Oct. 6), and will attempt to answer some of these long-held questions about the Red Cross, its origins, and ongoing work. Updates by nurses on the tour will be posted on this blog and collected here. I hope, of course, that as with all good tours, people will walk away asking even more questions than those they started with, steadfast in their understanding of and passion for the Red Cross.
As always, thank you to the incredible staff and volunteers who share my passion and have helped to make this tour possible. We would not be taking this journey if not for their intense guidance, knowledge, expertise, connections, and shared enthusiasm.
[photo caption: Sue Hassmiller, on left, as American Red Cross volunteer following 2011 Alabama tornado strikes. Here’s a 2011 blog series Hassmiller wrote at the time.)