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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