Monday, November 05, 2012


Encouraged by human spirit at local shelter

When Hurricane Sandy was predicted, the American Red Cross activated the plan to mobilize regional shelters, joining forces with the Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) to provide health services.  As a volunteer nurse for the MRC, I agreed to assist in providing medical services, for my very first time. What an experience! 

Most of the hallways of Groton's Fitch High School were lined with cots, some of which were already occupied by early Monday morning when I arrived.  A steady stream of people continued to arrive, from infants to teenagers to octogenarians, some wheeling portable oxygen tanks, some with walkers, some with toddlers in tow and some with babes in arms.  The Groton shelter welcomed pets, to be housed and cared for at one end of the school.  Quickly there assembled an assortment of large cats, barking large and small dogs, a pet rabbit, caged birds, even one family’s beloved gecko.  It was a cacophony of noise, to be sure.

Soon, the number of people exceeded the number of cots set up, and the Red Cross had to open and assemble 93 more cots from the contingency supply. There was barely eight inches between cots.

From a health perspective, that could have been an infection nightmare. For example, someone with early flu symptoms should not be  placed in a cot inches away from someone with a compromised immune status due to chemotherapy treatments.

That was the responsibility of the volunteer nurses. A fairly comprehensive entry questionnaire was designed to elicit this information.

At the height of the hurricane there were more than 260 individuals, not counting pets. Some of the medical problems presented were insulin-dependent diabetes, emphysema, rheumatoid arthritis, breast cancer, asthma, morbid obesity, autism, traumatic brain injury, and congestive heart failure.

And did I forget to mention psychiatric illnesses like severe anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, and dementia?  Those problems might have resulted in a disaster were it not for the excellent interventions of a mental health worker and a licensed clinical social worker from Southeastern Mental Health Authority. 

Out of this controlled chaos emerged a fascinating dynamic.  People really rose to the occasion to help their neighbors through this crisis. One burly, bearded, young man was seen supporting an elderly stooped woman as they walked slowly to the cafeteria. Another young woman offered her adjustable cot to a frail woman whose cot was flat, less comfortable, and had no backrest. The young woman even offered to bunk with her son if we ran out of cots.  A youngster with severe autism was crying at times due to the overstimulation of noise and light, yet the people all around were supportive to the mother and helped in any way they could. Asians were sleeping next to African Americans, Hispanics, and Caucasians. Heavily tattooed and pierced men were sleeping next to elderly veterans. 

It was actually very heartwarming to witness the spirit of cooperation of so many people in this stressful situation.

There were a few minor incidents involving some teenagers, but that was easily squelched with the presence of the Groton Police who remained at the shelter for the entire time.  Their presence was key to maintaining an atmosphere of calm and safety.

From this experience comes a few lessons learned:

  Alcohol-based hand sanitizer should be available everywhere, and encouraged upon entry and before any meal is served.

  Those on a special diet need to bring the required food with them.

  Pillows and blankets should be brought from home.

  Those requiring continuous oxygen should bring their concentrator in addition to one portable oxygen tank.

  All medications should be brought from home, and the person must be independent, or someone must be responsible for administering them besides shelter nurses.

The Red Cross has conducted disaster drills recently, and this was evident in the relatively smooth operation of this real emergency situation of Hurricane Sandy.  It was exhausting yet exhilarating to be a part of this experience.

Alice Facente is a community education nurse for the Backus Health System. To comment on this column or others, visit the Healthy Living blog at or e-mail Ms. Facente or any of the Healthy Living columnists at

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