Monday, February 10, 2014

I Am a Red Cross Nurse

By Jan Freeman, RN, MSN

I am a Red Cross Nurse.

Few descriptive comments I can say about myself generate more pride.  After working 30 plus years, in hospital settings, my husband and I (both RNs) were able to “retire” young.  We planned this future for ourselves for many years.  Feeling very blessed by all that our lives had given us, we wanted to give back to our community and become more engaged in the activities that mattered most to us.  For us, that meant using our knowledge and experience to help others.  To that end, we jumped into volunteering with the American Red Cross with both feet.

In the last year, we have been on 4 national disaster deployments including Hurricane Sandy.  In addition, we serve our local community by teaching CPR and First Aid, and participate in community outreach events such as health fairs and preparedness events, etc.  In 2012, we also staffed a Red Cross informational booth at the TNA Convention.  We are members of our local Disaster Action Team where we respond to single and multi-family fires, local floods and other weather events in our community.  We speak at fundraising events.  We teach Disaster Nursing to other volunteer nurses and in nursing schools throughout the state and wherever we are invited to speak.  

For the last several months, I have served in a volunteer leadership position as the State Nurse Liaison for the state of Tennessee.  My role has been to provide support to Red Cross chapters throughout the state by helping them recruit and retain nurse volunteers, support health initiatives, develop partnerships, provide information and education, and be a resource and contact for nurses. 
The year 2012 was very busy for me and my husband, Drex.  As volunteers, one of our first activities was to join a Rapid Deployment Shelter Team.  This is a group of volunteers who train together on a regular basis so that when a disaster strikes, they are ready to go, and can deploy and mobilize to operate a Red Cross shelter in short order.  One afternoon, our phone rang and it was our team captain asking if we could travel to Duluth, Minnesota to help with the worst flooding in that city’s history.  Less than 24 hours later, we were on a plane headed north. 

When we arrived in Duluth, we went to the shelter location and quickly jumped into our roles; deciding which of us would work which positions, who would work the day and night shifts, we set up cots, arranged for feeding, organized supplies, etc.  In the evenings, I would write emails to our five daughters back home in Tennessee to give them updates on what we were doing.  The following is copied from one of those emails home to them.

Tuesday June 26, 2012  

Dear girls,

Today was a very long day. Our shift is 8:00 am to 8:00 pm, but we were needed to come in early and we ended up staying late.  It has been some time since I did this much physical work in a single day.  I got to ride in an Emergence Response Vehicle (ERV) and help pick up and deliver bottled water to residents in affected communities.  I made  60 ham and cheese sandwiches, 30 peanut butter and jelly,  carted in  boxes of apples and oranges, mopped floors, disinfected cots, washed blankets and towels, repaired a donated high chair…..the list goes on.   

But the best part of my day was my interaction with a family here.  They have been here four days, and the days have not been kind to them.  These are decent, hardworking people who have just fallen on hard times.  The father had lost his job; they were living in an apartment.  They lost everything they have, the building is condemned, and they had no renters insurance and now no place to go.  One of our case workers had been trying to find them an apartment, but since the father was unemployed no one would accept them without any proof of income even though the Red Cross would pay their first month’s rent.  Finally, someone came through for them and said they would provide them a place free of rent for 6 months.  The Red Cross gave them money for clothing, food, and a voucher for furniture from Goodwill.  These were the happiest people I have ever seen.  They hugged us all and couldn’t stop thanking us.  Then, their 5 year old boy came up to me and handed me a piece of paper.  On it he had written in very primitive but legible print:  

Thank You Red Cross.  I Love Your Bunks.

I was so moved it brought tears to my eyes.  I asked if I could give him a hug.  People often ask us why we volunteer so much time without pay.  This is my answer.  There is no amount of money that could replace the feeling you get by helping another human being in their hour of need; especially a child.  I have been a nurse for over 30 years and have loved every second of it, but this topped anything I ever did in my work life. 

As is the nature of many floods however, the flood waters came up fast but receded quickly and within a few days we were no longer needed in Duluth.  But needs were developing quickly in other places as tropical storm Debby was pummeling north central Florida, bringing with it torrential rains and more flooding.  My team was asked if we would get on a plane and go directly to Florida from Minnesota, and the next morning we flew from Minneapolis to Gainesville, Florida.  The situation there was much worse, as the flooding did not recede as quickly. 

Another entry from emails home:

Dear Girls,

When we got to the shelter, things were a bit chaotic.  It is hot and humid from the flooding and Florida temperatures.  There are more people in the shelter here and fewer volunteers to help.  Everyone has a story to tell and is very eager to share it.  We did a great deal of listening and looking at amazing photos clients had taken with the cell phones.  We heard story after story of water rescues in airboats and of flood waters rising by the foot in an hour’s time.  We did whatever needed to be done, alternating between helping out with general shelter duties to manning the nurse’s station.  We did everything from bandaging wounds, delivering meals, disinfecting cots, interfacing with the local Health Department, to security, and washing and drying wet clothing. I am very tired, but feeling great about what we are doing here.  Love Mom

And then came October.  Drex and I were actually taking a week of much needed vacation spending a week on St. George’s Island in Florida.  In the evenings, we would switch on the TV and weather sources began to speak of a possible “Super Storm” that was brewing in the Atlantic.  Projections looked ominous and we began to worry.  As the days wore on, it began to look like the worst case scenario would become a reality.  On October 29, Hurricane Sandy made landfall affecting 24 states and slamming the most populated region in the United States.  The phone rang once again asking if both my husband and I could deploy as nurse volunteers.  This time we deployed separately; I went first on November 1, and Drex followed on December 2.    

I flew into White Plains, New York because LaGuardia and JFK were both closed due to flooding.  When I landed, the airport was on emergency power.  It was a bit of a challenge to find my rental car in a dark parking lot.  There was hardly any traffic on the road to my staff shelter, which was located in a high school gymnasium.  That night, I slept on a cot as did several hundred other volunteers.  The next morning, I arrived at Red Cross headquarters in White Plains to get my assignment.  I was told I would be working in Staff Wellness, which is taking care of our Red Cross volunteers, who are working on the operation.  Over 15,000 Red Cross volunteers mobilized from across the U.S. to respond to Sandy.  The majority found themselves in New York and/or New Jersey.  I had only been on the job an hour when I found myself already taking an ill volunteer to the hospital.  Tests revealed he had pneumonia and needed to be admitted.  I stayed with him until 1 a.m. speaking with his daughters, scared for their father and hundreds of miles away back home, via telephone and keeping them updated of his condition.  When I returned to headquarters, I was told that I was to be the Lead Nurse for a team of nurses going to New York City to take care of our volunteers on Staten Island and Brooklyn, which were two of the hardest hit areas.  I was at once both honored and anxious and I hoped I was up to the task.  Then my worst fear was realized…..I was handed the keys to a very large SUV and told to drive to New York City and find my staff shelter before it got dark.  It was around 3:00 p.m. and rush hour rapidly approaching.  I was now officially scared.  I live in a very small town in rural Tennessee with a population of around 1,500 people and drive a Toyota Prius.  The thought of driving an enormous SUV, full of people, through New York City during rush hour seemed far more daunting than my worst nursing assignment.  But, I took the keys, gathered my team, grabbed the GPS that I was so grateful that Drex INSISTED I bring with me and headed south.  I drove through Manhattan, by the Battery Park area, and sometimes the GPS faltered because it didn’t know which roads, bridges or tunnels were closed but we made it.

 The next two weeks were full of long days and hard work.  When we weren’t caring for volunteers, we were visiting shelters checking on conditions there, following Red Cross truck drivers delivering supplies to remote areas hardest hit, and in some cases we were flying volunteers home who were too weak to travel alone.  We were on call 24-7, which meant there were times we worked many hours straight.  

I finally returned home on November 16th.  Drex deployed on December 2, and he, too, went to New York.  By this time the mission had shifted into recovery mode and many of the shelters that were open on my deployment had closed.  He also was assigned to Staff Wellness and worked in both New York and New Jersey helping to ensure the health of our volunteer workforce.  The statistics regarding Red Cross Support during Hurricane Sandy are staggering:

11 million meals and snacks served
7 million relief items distributed
81,000 overnight stays in shelters
109,000 health and mental health contacts

But, you don’t have to hop on a plane and travel across the country to put your nursing skills to good use for the American Red Cross.  There are ample opportunities to help right in your local community.   My husband and I are active on our community’s local Disaster Action Team.  In this capacity we respond to local disasters on a smaller scale such as single family fires, apartment fires, local flooding and weather events.  You can become a Red Cross instructor and teach a multitude of courses designed to promote preparedness, health and safety.  There are opportunities to support the armed forces community as a nurse volunteer, and even occasional opportunities to volunteer internationally.

This is only a small piece of my Red Cross volunteer experience but I frequently find myself wondering what my next volunteer “adventure” will be.  Of course, I feel confident that whatever the future holds, a Red Cross nurse will be there to answer the call for help.  It may be me or my husband, Drex, but my bigger hope is that it might be YOU……the person reading this article.  Or, better still, that it will be you and I together working side by side putting our nursing skills to good use and forging a new and lasting friendship.

Our mission for the future is to have a Red Cross Nurse in every community; every day.  Disasters strike without warning and having a cadre of nurse volunteers is vital to accomplishing our mission of alleviating human suffering.  I know the challenges are always great, but so is the need.  I hope that any nurse reading this article will consider volunteering.  I hope that anyone who knows a nurse will share this article with them.   

If you are a nurse, with an active license, I hope you will support us in our mission.  We need YOU, so that we can respond to local fires and be with families when they need help the most.  We need YOU to teach lay persons CPR and First Aid so they may someday save someone’s life.  We need YOU to help meet health needs of families in shelters where they can have a warm, safe place to sleep and a hot meal to eat.  We need YOU to help teach our community’s children and grandchildren how to swim and become safe and responsible babysitters.  We need YOU to help reach out to help military families or help with blood drives so vital to saving lives.  

For more than a century Red Cross nurses have brought care and comfort to people in need.  If you would like to join the more than 20,000 nurse volunteers and become part of this proud heritage or find out more about becoming a Red Cross nurse volunteer, then please contact your local chapter.  You can find out more about Red Cross nursing, as well as locate your local chapter by visiting  or you may email me directly at

I AM TNA, I Am A Red Cross Nurse!

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