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KNOXVILLE — For two years, Susan Speraw has been teaching nurses how to be national and international leaders in times of crisis.

This summer, she is telling world leaders about the University of Tennessee’s Homeland Security Nursing graduate program. The program began in the fall of 2005 and was the first such accredited degree program in the nation.

Speraw, an associate professor, went to Amsterdam last week to address health professionals attending the World Association of Disaster and Emergency Medicine conference. She was part of a panel talking about the evolving role of nurses in disaster health care. Other panelists were from Australia, Great Britain, Colombia and Japan, as well as Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins universities in the U.S.

This week, she goes to Japan to speak to the International Council of Nurses about the Homeland Security Nursing program, its global focus, and the ethical dilemmas health providers face during disasters.

“It is important for nurses to assume leadership positions in disaster response,” Speraw said.

Although nurses always have been in the forefront of addressing the public’s needs — take nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale, for instance — they never have been thought of as crisis leaders, she said.

“Most people think of nurses as people who work in hospitals, who do treatments and dispense medications. They expect nurses to be present for major life events, like birth and death, but they don’t tend to see nurses in major leadership positions,” Speraw said.

“It’s not that nursing can’t do that; it just hasn’t been the traditional role of nurses.”

Yet, Speraw said, nurses are trained to take care of the whole person — body, mind and soul. Triage is skill they practice daily. And, they are trained communicators, able to talk to doctors as easily as they talk to children.

“If you were to write a job description for the perfect person to lead disaster response, the person you would be writing a job description for is a nurse,” Speraw said.

The Homeland Security Nursing graduate program was created to address a largely unmet need in public health by preparing nurse leaders, managers and clinical nursing specialists to orchestrate the response to mass-casualty disasters.

“We take an all-hazards approach. It is organized to teach students about every kind of potential threat to security,” Speraw said.

“We’re teaching them about ethics, international relations, the economics of disaster, hazardous materials, weather, floods, famine, genocide, international human rights and how to set up shelters for masses of people,” Speraw said. “We take nurses who are already expert clinicians and train them in these other skills.”

Speraw said the people typically chosen for high-level emergency management jobs come from a background of financial management or human resources.

“The trouble is, these managers are not specially trained to deal with the physiological response to shock. Dealing with disaster is more than making business decisions about what to order — it is ordering what people really need to survive the disaster. Nurses could bring much greater efficiency to the process.”

Speraw said some of her students are working on projects that look at various crises and interventions.

“One student is talking to nurses who worked during Hurricane Katrina to find out what they experienced and what could have helped them through the crisis,” she said.

“Other students are looking at faith-based disaster responses, at vulnerable populations and at the preparation of disaster teams who are sent out to deal with crises such as tsunamis, tornadoes or earthquakes.”

Speraw said being invited to address the World Association of Disaster and Emergency Medicine and the International Council of Nurses provides forums to promote nursing and UT.

“It will take UT and UT’s nursing education into the world arena,” she said.

Amy Blakely, (865) 974-5034,
Susan Speraw, (865) 974-7586,