By Tina Prince, Clinic Manager, Kenton County Health Center
Plain and simple: Nurses want to help people in need—and it’s why many of us work in public health. Responding to a disaster situation is the ultimate test of a nurse’s dedication.
When the request came in for NKY Health nurses to be deployed to Florida to assist in the response to Hurricane Irma, multiple nurses raised their hands to help.
Four NKY Health nurses—myself, Bethany Mills, Sheila Nowak, and Cathy Templeton—ultimately answered the call to help, and were deployed to Florida on Sept. 14.
That first day was filled with excitement, adrenalin and fear of the unknown. This journey was the first for the Kentucky Nurse Strike Team.
Our first stop was in Frankfort to meet with the rest of the team from Kentucky. We participated in a briefing to learn the assignments, did a few media interviews and then packed into four vehicles for the trip to Florida.
On Sept. 16, our team arrived for our first assignment in Orlando. We’d been asked to assist at a medical needs shelter operated by the Florida Department of Health. We met Patty, the director of the shelter. After more than 11 days of operation, we could see how exhausted she was. Patty had tears in her eyes when we told her we were going to close the shelter for her. She was the one who gave us the nickname, “Kentucky Angels.”
Throughout the course of our deployment in Florida, we’d work at four shelters. While exact situations at each varied, there were some common conditions: Workers at the shelter were worn out, after operating for more than a week. One Florida nurse reported leaving when the sun was down and arriving in the shelters before sun up for 11 days in a row. Our help was needed by the staff, and this made the Kentucky nurses’ hearts feel full.
The patients needed our help, too. Many had been shuffled around between three or four shelters. Some were separated from their families because they had pets. Residents of the shelters told us stories of people with no electricity or water with mud, alligators, rats and snakes in their homes. In Kissimmee, we had many patients from a nursing home. Patients described being rescued by a boat because the waters surrounded their building. They called it their Island of Kissimmee.
Many of the residents of the shelter were without their belongings. They did not have their oxygen or medications, which often became a focus of our nursing work. Most of the patients just need someone there to talk to and listen to all their worries while trying to make them smile.
We’d planned to assist in Florida for two weeks, and at one point, it looked like we might be deployed to the Florida Keys. But, six days after our deployment, we learned that we were finished and we could head home the next day. We were disappointed, but understood that Florida was now in a place where local workers could again care for those impacted by the hurricane.
Destination Kentucky! We arrived back in Frankfort at 5 p.m. on Sept. 22 with a police escort. It was exciting to be home, and we were filled with pride about what we’d done to help in Florida.
Our deployment was also a learning experience, and since our return we’ve had a chance to share our feedback—the strengths and areas for improvement—with disaster preparedness coordinators here in Northern Kentucky and in Frankfort, so that improvements might be made for future teams.
For me, the trip was a success. When you are a nurse, you know that every day you will touch a life or a life will touch yours. I couldn’t have asked for a better team coming from NKY Health. We had to be flexible, skilled, confident, organized and prepared to do the unknown. A quote in the newspapers fit us perfectly, “No task too big or small.” Yes, they called us Kentucky Angels but we were only doing our job that we love.
Weekend of Sept. 9: Initial request from Kentucky Department for Public Health for nursing assistance. Staff who are able to respond are identified.
Sept. 11: NKY nurse team received briefing on potential response.
Sept. 14: Team of four (Bethany Mills, Sheila Nowak, Tina Prince and Cathy Templeton) deploys. First stop is Franklin County Health Department to meet up with rest of Kentucky team.
Sept. 15: Kentucky team arrives in Orlando at 2 a.m. NKY nurses work first night shift in Orlando-area shelter.
Sept. 16: KY team re-assigned to shelter in Kissimmee. Provide care for 22 patients in a special needs media shelter.
Sept. 19: KY team re-assigned to shelter in Naples.
Sept. 20: KY team received notice that they are no longer needed.
Sept. 21: KY team departs Florida to return to Kentucky.
Sept. 22: Team arrives back in Kentucky.
Steve Divine contributed to this article