What Joining the Northern California Fire Relief Effort Taught Me About Healthcare

Student Voices is a blog series written by SMU students. If you have an idea for a story, reach out to ssolo@samuelmerritt.edu. This article is written by SMU Sacramento ELMSN-FNP student Haley Harmon.

On October 12 and 13, I volunteered with two ELSMN-FNP students from SMU’s Sacramento campus, alongside students from SMU’s San Mateo and Oakland campuses, at the Sonoma- Marin Fairgrounds, an evacuation shelter in Petaluma designated to help survivors of the region’s fires. The night we entered the doors of the makeshift clinic site, the ongoing Northern California fires had already caused dozens of fatalities and consumed 200,000 acres.

While individual participation in the fire effort was not formally recognized by SMU, as Bay Area locals my fellow students and I felt called to help our neighbors who had been displaced by the fires. Many of us saw this as an opportunity enhance our critical-care experience. What I saw on the front lines of disaster relief taught me so much more.

There were nurses, EMTs, doctors, respiratory therapists, mental health professionals, massage therapists, members of the military, and countless civilians who came together to help hundreds of people in need. Just like in a hospital, there were so many people on site to ensure that everyone was taken care of. In effect, interdisciplinary medicine was paramount in the rescue efforts.

Unlike in a typical hospital setting, the disaster caused major disruption to the lives of those fleeing the fires. Some people were recovering from major procedures at home when they were forced to evacuate. Others were supposed to pick up their blood pressure medication when their lives were turned upside down, resulting in dangerous hypertension. For some individuals battling debilitating mental health issues, the fire interrupted important daily routines that help keep them stable. While the breadth of issues for victims of the fire was striking, it was clear that care providers started every interaction with compassion.

Even amid all of the pain, uncertainty, and destruction, there were children playing in the field together, volunteers comforting those displaced from their homes, and nurses taking vitals. For each fire survivor, there were at least three volunteers there ready to help. It was moving to see everyone come together, working towards the health and safety of their neighbors. As a nurse-in-the-making, this experience solidified my desire to pursue this field and be a critical part of mending communities when they most need it.

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