With the coronavirus pandemic gripping the world’s attention and daily life, there has been an increased focus and deep appreciation for health care workers on the front lines of this public health crisis who are risking their own health to do their jobs caring for others.
National Nurses Week is May 6-12 and the American Red Cross is proud of its long tradition of nurse volunteers stepping up to provide care in times of crisis. Clara Barton was known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” for nursing and comforting wounded soldiers during the Civil War. It inspired her to eventually found the American Red Cross in 1881.
During World War I and World War II, the Red Cross recruited thousands of volunteer nurses to serve at home and overseas. In 1918, the Volunteer Nurses’ Aide Service was established to help overworked nurses care for returning veterans in civilian and military hospitals, and to sustain ongoing, domestic nursing programs.
The coronavirus outbreak is not the first time that the Red Cross has helped to combat a national health emergency. More than 15,000 women were recruited to help care for victims of the Spanish influenza during the 1918 epidemic. Nurses also aided during the severe polio epidemic in the 1940s and 50s and other periodic influenza outbreaks.
Today, Disaster Health Services (DHS) volunteers bring relief to disaster victims, work in military hospitals, collect lifesaving blood and teach courses ranging from CPR & First Aid to disaster preparedness.
Maria Gubnitsky, a registered nurse, was inspired to become a DHS volunteer when the Red Cross requested support for Hurricane Harvey victims in 2017.
“I saw people with water up to their chest and I remember seeing the red vests,” Maria says. “It was the Red Cross helping! I wanted to be a part of it, so I signed up right then and there.”
Maria, who lives in Southwest Ranches, Fla., and is involved in the Broward County Chapter, has been a nurse since 1986 after earning a bachelor’s in psychology from FSU and then a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (B.S.N.) from FIU. Maria graduated and went straight into open heart intensive care as part of a pilot nursing resident program. She stayed in ICU’s, primarily for open heart, for most of her career and finally into administration.
Although she is now retired, Maria’s license is still active. She knew she could put her nursing skills to use for DHS, which provides health services that address the unmet healthcare needs of folks impacted by disaster. She is now the DHS South Florida Regional Program Lead.
Under normal circumstances, Maria is responsible for supporting the volunteering goals of healthcare professionals that want to be a part of DHS. She is the friendly voice who welcomes new volunteers, onboards them and ensures that they complete their training in service preparedness. And since 90% of DHS response is for home fires, she trains nurses for disaster action team (DAT)-DHS assistance and creates a monthly schedule so someone is always on call.
“Our goal is to ensure that those affected by a home fire are safe and well from a health services perspective,” she says. “We act as a liaison to get them what they need – medications and consumable or durable medical equipment damaged or destroyed by the fire – as quickly as possible.”
During not-so-normal circumstances, the role of DHS is to address the healthcare needs present in a disaster scenario and to work with community partners, physicians, pharmacies, insurance companies, and community and public health officials to ensure folks have the health care they need.
Maria has served in large disasters here in South Florida, but she also deployed to North Carolina during Hurricane Florence where she did shelter care – providing supportive and assistive care in maintaining clients’ optimal level of health. DHS volunteers in a shelter setting assess individuals, address health needs and advocate if a client needs further care. They also assist with activities of daily living such as checking blood pressure, listening to hearts and lungs, diabetes care and having over-the-counter medicines available. They also do outreach into affected communities.
“We nurture and alleviate those who have unmet disaster-related healthcare needs – a very vulnerable group,” Maria says. “We rise to the occasion of a client’s needs before, during and after a disaster.”
That includes the coronavirus pandemic. “Home fires don’t take a break,” says Maria, “so we’re finding that balance between supporting ongoing home fire disasters and the pandemic situation. We also want to make sure we are prepared to keep our workforce safe while meeting the community’s needs.”
For example, the State Department requested the Red Cross to provide humanitarian aid to foreign nationals stranded in South Florida due to travel restrictions. Maria’s team assessed their needs and worked with pharmacies and community health partners to get their prescriptions refilled and delivered.
For other cases, DHS is following the “stay at home” government-issued directives and is addressing health care needs remotely while following the Red Cross’ updated guidelines for safe response in support of the community, as well as preparedness for a disaster response.
No matter the disaster or crisis, the constant is the Red Cross. “People ask me why I do this, and I say it’s because the Red Cross does what it says it’s going to do, which is to alleviate and prevent human suffering. It really is heartwarming and a privilege to be part of the team and to have the opportunity to help those that need it most. That is the truth. That is why I continue. You see the impact you make on what is the worst day of most people’s lives. When they are the most vulnerable, the Red Cross is there.”
On National Nurses Week, the Red Cross salutes nurse heroes throughout our history and especially today, like Maria, who are armed not with capes and superpowers, but with masks and compassion.
If you are a licensed health care professional* and are interested in becoming a Disaster Health Services responder or in becoming a volunteer with the Red Cross, please visit redcross.org
*In order to be a DHS team member, your health care license has to be active and unencumbered. DHS team members consist of Nurses – Registered Nurse (RN), Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN), Advanced Nurse Practitioner (ARNP), Nurse Practitioner (NP) – EMT’s, Paramedics, Physician Assistants and Doctors.
Written by Estefania Garcia
Historical source: redcross.org/about-us/who-we-are/history/nursing