When Hurricane Irma hit Florida, Florida International University’s Florida Advance Surgical Transport (FIU-FAST) took action. After the Florida Health Department requested their assistance, the response was interdisciplinary, says Yhovana D. Gordon, EdD, DNP, ARNP, FNP-BC, who is Chair of the Program of Graduate Nursing, Florida International University Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing & Health Sciences, in Miami, Florida.

“Students and faculty from the nurse practitioner program at the FIU Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing & Health Sciences joined forces with FIU Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine physicians, as well as paramedics and others,” explains Gordon.

An all-volunteer response program, FIU-FAST is designed to rapidly deploy when requested. The volunteers add their skills and knowledge to existing health care professionals to help provide critical care following major disasters like Hurricane Irma.

An edited version of Gordon’s interview follows.

How many nursing students came together to work with Hurricane Irma victims? How long did they help? What kinds of things did they do? How were they supervised?

The mix of graduate nursing students (i.e., licensed Registered Nurses), faculty, and others on each FIU-FAST team varied as they were deployed to help hurricane victims at various locations.

For example, when the FIU student and faculty team of six physicians, six nurses, and a paramedic arrived at West Kendall Baptist Hospital on September 11, ninety-two patients were waiting in the ER. Less than three hours later, only 30 remained.

Thanks in part to the extra expertise, FIU also deployed an 18-member team of students and faculty members to assist at Jackson South Community Hospital. Two nurse practitioners and 10 registered nurses worked alongside three paramedics, two physicians, and one physician assistant to alleviate the patient backlog in the hospital’s emergency room.

What kinds of things did they learn? How has the FIU-FAST program gotten nursing students involved in natural disaster assistance like this in the past?

The participants learned how to respond quickly, communicate effectively, and help triage and treat people who arrived at medical centers needing care in the wake of Hurricane Irma. The team focused on treating less complex patient presentations like lacerations, the flu, and other ailments, freeing up the existing medical staff to treat more acute or complex cases.

FIU-FAST formed in April 2016 through a partnership with the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine and the university’s Department of Emergency Management.

In terms of past deployments, the FIU-FAST team traveled to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala in February 2017. The mission was part of an ongoing project between the military and civilians led by the U.S. Southern Command. The goal was to provide medical and veterinary assistance.

In May 2017, the FIU-FAST team also set up a 10-bed critical care field hospital, this time much closer to home. The temporary health care facility was set up on Miami Beach to assist local responders working during the Memorial Day weekend.

Why is a program like this important? Why is it especially important to involve nursing students?

The FIU-FAST program is essential for providing medical assistance in the wake of disasters, times when needs often increase to a point that challenge existing resources. It’s important for nursing students at the FIU Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing & Health Sciences to be involved – part of our mission is to serve communities in need throughout the year, not just in times of crisis. Also, deploying nursing students to assist via FIU-FAST provides them with unparalleled experiences and teachable moments outside the classroom, giving them skills they can use throughout their careers.

What skills can nursing students glean from this experience? What skills have they learned in school that they could apply on the front lines?

Nursing students can learn to work on interdisciplinary teams, to think quickly, to communicate effectively, and, above all, to serve communities in need no matter what the circumstances. Our nursing students learn critical skills through education, clinical rotations, and simulation training, all of which they can apply in real-life situations as warranted.

The program underlines the essential roles nurses play on interdisciplinary teams, whether in day-to-day practice, during times of crisis, or when leadership skills are essential. The student participants also gained invaluable experience by working side by side directly with faculty and collaborating with them onsite. Although it’s difficult to predict when the next disaster will strike that requires a rapid response from the FIU-FAST team, but one certainty is they will be ready to move and make a difference at the community and patient levels.

Michele Wojciechowski

Michele Wojciechowski is an award-winning writer and author of the humor book Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box.

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