Nursing News

Medical Professionals Responding to the Disaster in Japan

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By Debra Wood, RN, contributor

March 25, 2011 - From hurricanes to the Indonesia tsunami to the earthquake in Haiti, nurses were among the first to volunteer to provide health services to the frightened, injured and medically needy victims of the disaster. But Japan’s triple event—earthquake, tsunami and nuclear release—is different.

Susan Fletcher, R.N., M.S.N., Ed. D.
Susan Fletcher, Ed.D, MSN(R), RN, encourages nurses to prepare for disasters by taking continuing education programs.

“Nurses are very giving people, and anytime a crisis occurs, nurses are some of the first people who want to be involved in providing any kind of services to people,” said Susan Fletcher, EdD, MSN(R), RN, associate professor at Chamberlain College of Nursing in St. Louis. “There are many different things nurses can do to be involved.”

Nurses still want to come to the aid of those adversely affected, agreed Cheryl Peterson, MSN, RN, director of nursing practice and policy for the American Nurses Association in Silver Spring, Md.. Yet, she said, Japan presents several logistics problems.

Japanese Red Cross Society
Japan Red Cross Society nurses and doctors talk with a patient in the high school evacuation center in Ostuchi. Photo credit: Japanese Red Cross Society.

“The Japanese are well prepared to respond to disasters, so their need for personnel is typically based on a particular specialty,” Peterson explained. “Because of distance and transport into Japan, it is difficult to send individuals unless you are connected with an existing response operation like the federal government.”

As a result of the nuclear accident, she added, sending untrained and potentially poorly equipped individuals into the area is not safe.

Japanese Red Cross Society
Every available space throughout the hospital is being used to cater and care for those in need of medical assistance. Photo credit: Japanese Red Cross Society.

Therefore, the American Nurses Association encourages nurses wanting to help to support the nurses of Japan with donations through the American Nurses Foundation’s Japan Disaster Relief Fund.

“Financial support allows for those on the ground to purchase what is needed,” Peterson said. “We do not have to guess as what is needed, and this also allows for the purchase of goods and services on the local market and helps to rebuild the economy.”

Japanese Red Cross Society
Elderly people in the high school evacuation center in Ostuchi. Photo credit: Japanese Red Cross Society.

Fletcher suggested nurses wanting to help donate to the American Nurses Foundation or the American Red Cross. They should not try to go to Japan.

“Nurses want to share their skills, but they need to temper that with knowledge about community and how they can share,” Fletcher said.

Japanese Red Cross Society
Patients are triaged on arrival at the entrance of the Ishinomak Red Cross hospital. Photo credit: Japanese Red Cross Society.

The American Red Cross has sent $10 million to the Japanese Red Cross Society, which has deployed nearly 171 medical teams, made up of more than 800 people, including doctors and nurses. A physician at one mobile clinic at an evacuation center reported many chronically ill people are without their medications. Some have become sick with colds. A stomach virus is causing diarrhea, resulting in dehydration.

Medical Teams International in Portland, Ore., which often sends nurses overseas during disasters, is not sending RNs to Japan due to licensure requirements, said Marlene Minor, spokesperson for the organization. They are, however, collecting donations for the relief effort. Local teams will distribute the water and food bought with the money the organization provides.

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, which had about 30 people working in its Tokyo office before the earthquake, has been providing medical consultations in evacuation centers in Minami Sanriku. Its physicians also report a prime issue is treating chronic conditions in the largely elderly population of evacuees.

Japanese Red Cross Society
JRCS mobile medical team working in the high school evacuation centre in Ostuchi. Photo credit: Japanese Red Cross Society.

International Medical Corps has dispatched an emergency response team to assess needs of people in the coastal regions affected by the earthquake and tsunami and reported people fatigued, stressed and in need of emotional support. Hypothermia, influenza-like illnesses and gastrointestinal infections are of concern as well. The corps has four medical teams on standby, ready to respond if needed.

Meanwhile, the federal government is lending assistance. The U.S. Agency for International Development has deployed a disaster assistance response team with members from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Department of Energy, search and rescue teams, and equipment to Japan. It is encouraging people wanting to help to donate funds to a reputable organization working in the affected area.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has sent three subject-matter experts to provide technical assistance to the U.S. Embassy and consulates and Japan, and has said it is ready to provide public health and medical support if requested by the Japanese government.

“There will be long-term problems Japan will be dealing with,” said Fletcher, explaining opportunities will continue to present themselves in ways that nurses can assist.

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