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When Hurricane Sandy bore down on New York City, it knocked out power inside the neonatal intensive care unit at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, silencing all the machines that kept the tiny infants alive.

Nurses snapped into disaster response mode, evacuating 20 babies—carrying them down dark staircases and ensuring breathing tubes remained intact—through a fierce storm and into ambulances.

The unique skills needed in such situations are exactly what the Global Disaster Nursing Program in the College of Nursing at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, teaches. The one-of-a-kind program aims to meet the challenge of educating twenty-first century nurses for leadership in disaster response, recovery and humanitarian relief.

“When disaster strikes, nurses are on the front lines managing resources, communicating information, and directing others in caring for people’s psychological and physical well-being,” said Susan Speraw, program director. “However, disaster-specific management and practice skills are rarely taught in the nursing curriculum.”

Launched in July 2005, UT’s program prepares nurse leaders, managers and advanced practice nurses to plan for mass casualty disasters, effectively manage logistics of an event in progress, work cooperatively with government officials and responders and provide direct patient care to victims of trauma or catastrophic events. Students can receive a master’s, doctorate (PhD or Doctor of Nursing Practice) or post-master’s certificate with a concentration in global disaster nursing.

“Given the increasing numbers of disasters globally, the requirement for higher education that addresses readiness expertise remains,” said Sharon Stanley, chief nurse of the American Red Cross, who responded to Hurricane Sandy’s devastation. “While volunteers can be trained with classes and/or short course preparation, the leaders who will continue to forge pathways ahead for community resiliency need advanced skill that can only be gained in formal education programs combined with real time experience.”

The UT program is needed now more than ever. Statistics predict disasters to become more common, according to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster.

“Nurses play a key role in addressing the health care needs of those impacted by a disaster,” said Laurel Cassidy, mental health officer with Doctors without Borders and graduate of the program. “My education supported my research and practice in the field, built on what I knew and provided me with the opportunity to develop my own nursing scholarship and expertise.”

Speraw saw the need for the program following the 9/11 Commission Report in which the need for nurses—although in the middle of the action—was overlooked and a need for a uniform language in disaster situations was emphasized.

“We developed an interdisciplinary curriculum in which nurses learn about topics such as earthquakes, law, architecture, tropical medicine and infectious disease,” said Speraw. “Students solve real problems in collaboration with other disciplines, which is what they will be doing in disaster situations.”

The program emphasizes global issues and development of care delivery competence in challenging environments. Students do field work, go abroad or work with an agency that responds to humanitarian needs in under-resourced areas.

“Emerging generations know they will be spending their productive years in a globalized world,” said Frederick Burkle, Jr. of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. “Global nursing programs like UT’s provide essential real-world competencies that complement the vision of the future these students eagerly seek.”

For information, call Susan Speraw at 865-974-7586 or visit nursing.utk.edu.


C O N T A C T:

Whitney Heins (865-974-5460, wheins@utk.edu)

Susan Speraw (865-974-7586, ssperaw@utk.edu)