September 22, 2017

By: Jennifer Gentry, MSN, RN, NEA-BC

Hurricane Harvey: Nurse on the Frontlines

Jennifer Gentry, MSN, RN, NEA-BC, is the chief nursing officer at CHRISTUS Spohn Hospitals Corpus Christi–Shoreline & Memorial in Corpus Christi, Texas. She’s also a member of the American Nurse Today editorial advisory board.

Jennifer spoke with American Nurse Today about her experiences during Hurricane Harvey, noting the teamwork and sacrifice of her nursing colleagues and other healthcare team members.

American Nurse Today: What did you and your family do to prepare for Hurricane Harvey?

Jennifer Gentry: My husband, 17-year-old son, and I live just east of Corpus Christi in Portland, TX. As soon as it was predicted that the storm had advanced to a potential Category 2 at landfall, we sent our son to Victoria, TX, to stay with his grandmother. My husband stayed in our home because he didn’t want leave me behind to evacuate.

On Tuesday evening I knew that, depending on the storm’s progression through the night, the hospital would begin aggressive preparations the next day. On Wednesday morning, I packed my hurricane go bag, said goodbye to my family, and headed to work.

ANT: Before Wednesday, how did you and the rest of the CHRISTUS Spohn Shoreline & Memorial team prepare?

JG: On Tuesday morning we immediately began gathering status updates for all departments in the facility, including power sources, food and water supplies, linen supplies, and equipment, as well as human resources. We called a Code Yellow (disaster code) by midday on Wednesday, and from that point on I stayed at the facility along with the rest of the executive team. We set up our incident command and began the work of preparing for the impact of the hurricane.

At that point, it felt to me as though the rest of the world stopped; it was very surreal. I believe my colleagues felt much the same. I’ve experienced multiple Category 2 and 3 hurricanes on the east coast, but not as a healthcare provider and definitely not in the incident command center for a large healthcare facility. Because of the slow progression of the storm, it was difficult to manage the lack of urgency that we faced at times. The potential was there and we (Shoreline incident command) wanted to be sure we were prepared for the worst.

ANT: How did your team work together during the storm?

JG: We had one incredibly challenging but beautiful incident. Our facility is split into two buildings connected by a sky bridge. As we prepared for the storm, our census required that both buildings be used, but when the census dropped and the storm reached Category 4 level, we decided to move everyone and all our resources into one building. We were already experiencing significant wind gusts and intermittent power outages, so time was of the essence. In a beautifully orchestrated multiprofessional collaboration, we moved 89 patients and over 200 associates from one building into the other in less than 45 minutes. Everyone helped, including our contracted plant operations and construction partners.

I witnessed incredible teamwork and collaboration across professions during this experience. It brings tears to my eyes to think about the dedication of everyone involved as we rode out the storm.

ANT: What kind of training should nurses receive (in school and in the workplace) to prepare them for natural disasters?

JG: As a nurse in a healthcare facility it is your professional responsibility to respond, and the idea of being essential personnel should be drilled into the professional nurse. Guidance and instruction should be provided to help nurses understand that plans and drills are important, but they don’t take into account the events that can’t be planned for or the unpredictable power of mother nature.

For example, as we went into Hurricane Harvey, people had high expectations about sleeping arrangements and personal space, but as the storm worsened plans had to change, and the staff was very nimble. It was amazing to see attitudes change over the course of the storm and witness the team come to the realization that they were in fact in a disaster zone. Everyone was very grateful for all that we had and the care we were able to continue to provide.

In addition, I think all healthcare professionals, especially nurses who are considered essential personnel, should have a basic understanding of how a command center is run and the roles of the section chiefs. Most frontline nurses haven’t had any exposure to working in such an environment.

ANT: Did you learn any surprising lessons from the storm?

JG: As a profession, nurses can learn a lot from linemen and the electric companies. We should strive to create a network as strong as that of the linemen. It didn’t matter what company the linemen worked for or where they were from, they understand the entire network of powerlines throughout the United States and can deploy teams to restore power within days or weeks. It is amazing and inspiring. I would like to see nursing create a similar network so that we can get the resources to the facilities and regions that need us the most during a time of need with little noise or fanfare.

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