NEW YORK NURSE: September 2011
by Mark Genovese
Despite the passage of a decade, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center still touches the daily lives of New York’s registered nurses. Reflecting on the tragic events, NYSNA members and staff shared their thoughts about how emergency readiness has improved since then and how far it still needs to go. The member quoted is cited as “RN” as her statements reflected the thoughts an feelings of many first responders.
RNs at Bellevue Hospital Center and the former St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan worked for hours on end, despite their personal losses. “We could see the towers come down, but we worked to help those we could,” said one RN. The St. Vincent’s ER, which normally handled about 150 patients in a full day, saw almost 400 patients in just six-hours.
At first, there was a surge of patients suffering from burns, smoke inhalation, and fractures. “We were caring for patients, dealing with bomb scares, and taking new admissions,” said an RN. “We had to multi-task like never before.” Then the flow of patients slowed; instead family members came, looking for loved ones. By the second day, the hospitals were mostly taking care of police, firefighters, and rescue workers injured in rescue and recovery efforts.
Many RNs “lived” at the facilities during this time, working double shifts. Some sought treatment for traumatic stress, but they also reported that people came together during the disaster. “Over the next several days, people lined up to give blood and help in any way they could,” said another RN. “As nurses, we have to show compassion, but during the response to 9/11 we got compassion back from the community.”
One of the things that has changed since 9/11 is that St. Vincent’s no longer exists, leaving the Lower Manhattan community without a vital resource.
Immediately after 9/11, registered nurses across the state began asking NYSNA how they could help.
“State emergency management officials had no way to identify or contact RNs who were available to serve in emergencies or their areas of expertise,” said NYSNA CEO Tina Gerardi. “NYSNA quickly organized an emergency response team to coordinate the flood of calls and e-mails from volunteers. This team compiled a database of more than 1,000 RNs.”
Afterward, NYSNA worked with the New York State Department of Health and received a federal grant to launch a permanent database called “NurseResponse” in fall 2003. The first opportunity to put it into action came when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in September 2005. That week, the database grew from 600 RNs to more than 1,000. Nearly 1,300 nurses enrolled by the end of 2005.
In April 2006, the database was transferred to the Health Department. It’s now called the ServNY program and is a database for all healthcare professionals ready and able to respond in an emergency.
“NYSNA did unbelievable work in a short time to establish the NurseResponse program,” Gerardi said. “It’s an essential service to the public and has increased awareness of the role RNs play in emergencies and of the need to include them in any coordinated response. Now as the ServNY program, it is a permanent legacy of 9/11, improving the state’s emergency preparedness.”
“The events of 9/11 – and subsequent disasters such as hurricanes Katrina and Irene, and the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan – have shown that local hospitals and agencies must be prepared and have resources ready, rather than depending on the federal government,” said Thomas Lowe, NYSNA’s occupational safety and health representative.
For a while, there was a push for emergency preparedness drills in hospitals. But as time went on, the demand dropped. A three-day NYSNA training program, created through a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Hazard Abatement Board, hasn’t been requested in the past several years.
“The bottom line is that emergency preparedness has to start before an emergency, and be integrated into day-to-day business,” Lowe said. “Perhaps the anniversary of this tragic event will rekindle efforts to be ever vigilant and prepared.”