For more than 500 years, the word “nurse” has meant “person who takes care of the sick.” By their very nature, people who care for the sick and injured are nurturing, generous and helpful. That is why nurses respond to natural disasters by rushing in, often without pausing to consider the impact it may have on their own lives.
A nurse’s primary commitment is to the patient. Yet, nurses also have an ethical obligation to care for themselves. That can become a conflict during times of disaster when caregivers may be at risk of endangering themselves. Do you treat this patient in extreme need under extreme conditions even if it risks injuring you or making you ill and, therefore, unable to care for the next patient? If you make a call that sacrifices a patient at the expense of taking care of yourself, you may be at risk for survivor’s guilt syndrome. In any case, just make sure you are as prepared as possible.
Unfortunately, state laws vary, and United States federal law is not robust enough to provide all the protections necessary for good Samaritans who put themselves in harm’s way to help others. Before you drop everything and head into a disaster zone, check the local and state laws so you know what kind of heroics are sanctioned and which could land you in court — or even jail. You may wish to consult with an attorney before you finish packing your bags.
There is also the issue of licensure. Most state boards have procedures for expedited licensure recognition during disasters, but if they’ve been knocked out by events, these rules may not hold. Nursing World notes, “Practicing without a license, even during an emergency, could leave the volunteer open to civil or criminal charges.”
Talk to your employer. If you are responding to a designated federal disaster, there are some (but not complete) guarantees that your employer must grant you leave and hire you back upon your return. But if you are an individual responding to a local disaster, you may put your job in jeopardy by volunteering to help.
Nurses and Preparation
As a crucial link of communication with patients, nurses are particularly valuable in planning and coordinating responses to natural disasters. The Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing says, “Nurses and other health care providers should collaborate with officials involved at all levels of disaster preparedness.”
The Emergency System for Advance Registration of Volunteer Health Professionals (ESAR-VHP) is a national network of state-based systems that verify healthcare volunteers’ credentials, and allows and encourages healthcare professionals to become involved in emergency planning and mitigation.
There will never be an end to natural disasters and the pain and suffering that follow. There will likewise never be an end to nurses and healthcare providers who selflessly, even reflexively, respond to help. Nurses should be proud of their long history of helping in times of need. It is a very good idea to plan for the day when you might be the first responder.
Learn more about the UAH online RN to BSN program.