Students gain real-world experience on disaster response through exercise

March 2012 disaster exerciseJust a few months ago, 34,000 acres burned in wildfires that consumed Bastrop, the worst in Texas history. Thousands had to be evacuated to nearby communities, and lives were changed forever.

The next time a wildfire strikes, students from the Texas A&M Health Science Center (TAMHSC) will be ready to respond to any resulting health care issues thanks to an interdisciplinary mass casualty disaster training exercise March 8 at Central Baptist Church in College Station.

The TAMHSC has conducted training exercises in the past, with a primary focus on hurricane relief and a chemical/fire explosion. This year’s scenario was a wildfire in Huntsville, with some evacuees coming to Bryan-College Station. Central Baptist Church served as a special medical needs shelter to handle burns, smoke inhalation, accidents, chronic disease management and acute care emergencies.

Special medical needs shelters are designed for people whose frailty, mobility, functional and/or medical disability makes them particularly vulnerable and at-risk in disaster situations. They provide a safe environment for those requiring limited medical assistance or monitoring due to a pre-existing health problem.

The exercise was planned and organized by senior nursing students with the guidance of Jerry Livingston, M.S.N., RN, assistant professor of nursing. Fourth-year medical students provided consultation on the patient scenarios to create a more interdisciplinary experience.

“We started planning and decided on this scenario about the time of the wildfires in Bastrop and surrounding areas,” said Hannah Swigert, College of Nursing student and incident commander. “We thought we should know about burns and how to care for people with them, as well as dealing with something so extreme.”March 2012 community-wide disaster exercise

More than 100 students from the College of Nursing, College of Medicine and Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy participated in the exercise, which included a separate morning and afternoon session. Assistance was provided by the American Red Cross, Bryan Fire Department, College Station Fire Department, Texas Engineering Extension Service and others.

Nursing students helped recruit more than 200 community volunteers to act as “patients” for the activity. They were organized, assigned to specific case scenarios, trained and coordinated by Laura Livingston, M.A., simulation training coordinator.

Nursing students triaged patients, obtaining vital signs and initial histories while tending to first aid issues. Medical students served as attending physicians. Pharmacy students assisted with pharmacology issues at a table.

Patients were discharged, transferred (with assistance from an EMT team) or remained for observation. Some scenarios even included patients receiving advanced life support efforts that sometimes required the students to determine the patient would not survive.

March 2012 community-wide disaster exerciseDuring the exercise, students made assessments, performed screenings and basic wound care, positioned and transported victims and more. Some even took leadership roles and coordinated care throughout the facility. In doing so, they learned skills such as the function of special medical needs shelters, roles and expectations of personnel, responses to an unfolding public health crisis and the importance of a team approach.

“This is a fluid event, and things happen that are not anticipated,” Jerry Livingston said. “Just like in a real disaster, we all have to be able to think critically outside our area of expertise and utilize any resources that might be available.”

TAMHSC faculty monitored student performance, answered questions, consulted on certain cases and ensured a safe practice. Both sessions ended with a debriefing.

“This exercise gave us good exposure to things we wouldn’t necessarily see in a hospital or clinical setting,” Swigert said. “We were able to collaborate and communicate effectively with the students and the participating agencies while learning a lot in the process.”

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