Rise to the Occasion

New Orleans, post Katrina. Courtesy of USA Today.

August 2005.

Walking into the lecture hall, I slid into a row near the back. Dropped my faded, frayed backpack onto the tile floor.  I smiled at my classmates as I took my seat.

They grinned and waved back at me.  We were seniors, and it felt pretty good to be ‘near the end’ of the madness which I called nursing school.  I was ready to be done with writing papers, listening to lectures, and taking exams. I couldn’t wait to start working and contributing to society. It was the first week of our last semester. I had just submitted my RN licensure application. Took my senior composite photos. Ran my degree audit.

Our public health instructor cleared her throat.

“This is it. As future nurses, you shall rise to the occasion. It is your duty to meet the needs of the community. Our neighbors, from Lousiana, are now, in our backyard. So we will go to them…”

Hurricane Katrina struck and traumatized the city of New Orleans last week. The levees broke and the blue waters of the Mississippi swallowed the city and over 1,000 people. Those who had survived were left stranded and scattered across the Gulf Coast.

“Throw your old syllabus out the window,” she announced. “The School of Nursing has changed the entire curriculum so that our public health nursing course will focus on helping Katrina evacuees.”

Hearing these words sent shivers up my shoulders.  Rather than watching the news and feeling helpless, I might be useful after all…

~ ~ ~

Inside the gymnasium, it was surreal.

Our first day of clinical (leaving a classroom setting and working in a setting where we care for patients), we visited a local Red Cross Shelter at a high school. Katrina evacuees, some single, some clustered with their families, sat upon the bleachers. They waited. And waited some more. (I’m not sure what they were waiting for…) Maybe they waited because they had no where to go; their homes and livelihoods had all been destroyed.

Tables were scattered across the gym floor, hand written posters haphazardly taped in front of them. It was set up looking like a career fair, except the exact opposite. Instead of an arena of hope and possibility, it was a refugee camp of disarray and confusion.

Triage. Housing. Food Vouchers. Medications. Clothes.  Transportation.

I had been assigned to the Medications table. Evacuees lined up to meet a nurse and myself, where we’d complete an intake of their medications and fill out vouchers so they could obtain the life saving medications they had lost during Katrina.

“Do you remember the name of your pill?” the nurse asked.

I sat beside him quietly, pen ready to transcribe medications.

“Ummm…. somethin’ for blood pressure…” she fumbled for the name. She looked at him, but her mind was lost elsewhere.  “I’m sorry, I just can’t remember…you see, everything’s been such a blur. I lost my father in the floods,” she explained.

“I’m sorry to hear that. What happened?” I asked.

“He drowned. He saved my momma by breakin’ out the roof. He pushed her out but he didn’t make it in time…” Her eyes dropped to the floor.

My heart sank. This woman’s father had drowned in the floods of fury and here I am asking her to spell out her medications?

“I’m so sorry…” were the only words I could utter. They were the only words I knew how to say.

Greeting grief, tackling trauma, encountering injustice…

nothing in the classroom could’ve prepared me for this.

~ ~ ~

I missed the linkup, but swing by the community at Yeah, Write! to check out the other inspiring bloggers.

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7 thoughts on “Rise to the Occasion

  1. I’m so glad you commented on HW site, and now I’ve found you. Looking forward reading and following your story. I probably would have ran out or starting crying. Ugh.

    • yes.. there were more survivors and heartbreaking stories that i encountered during the disaster relief/evacuee resettlement stage. it was challenging but i learned and grew so much.

      thanks for your comment! =D

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I can’t imagine all the heartbreak you saw. I’m so glad to know that there are strong people like you and your class who are willing to help when tragedy strikes.

    • thanks so much! it was difficult to grapple the devastation caused by the hurricane, but i’m glad that i was able to help out, even in small ways. its these stories that mold and motivate me to become a better, more compassionate nurse for my patients.

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