Florida Nurses Band Together Through Hurricane Irma


Florida Travel NursesBy Debra Wood, RN, contributor

Fierce winds whipped debris around and rain pounded on buildings while Hurricane Irma bore down on the Sunshine State in September 2017. In the midst of it all, Florida’s nurses banded together to overcome extraordinary circumstances to protect and deliver uninterrupted care to patients.  

Throughout the state, nurses in Hurricane Irma found shared strength and a new level of camaraderie by working and sometimes living together.

[Picture: The team at Morton Plant North Bay Hospital getting ready to receive patients evacuated during Hurricane Irma. Photo courtesy BayCare.]

“We have a great team here; thanks to the nurses and the ancillary staff,” said Taren Ruggiero, MSN, RN, chief nursing officer at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale. “Everyone worked well together and kept each other calm.”

Lisa Johnson, MSN, RN, NEA-BC, senior vice president and chief nursing officer for BayCare in Clearwater, also praised the teamwork at her hospitals. 

“It was all hands on deck, everyone equal,” Johnson said. “The whole community came together.”

Community was also the focus of nurse faculty and students at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami. Yhovana Gordon, EdD, DNP, ARNP, FNP-BC, chair of graduate nursing program at FIU, and a member of the university’s FAST emergency response team, took students to two hospital emergency departments experiencing high volumes – West Kendall Baptist Hospital and Jackson South Medical Center, both in Miami. 

“The greatest satisfaction comes from seeing nursing goes beyond the classroom,” Gordon said. “We want to be there in time of need and do what we are called to do.”

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Keeping calm and building camaraderie

Holy Cross begins planning before hurricane season to update preparedness. Ruggiero credits that planning with how smoothly everything flowed when Hurricane Irma hit. 

The hospital operated on full generator power during the storm to avoid power surges and flickering electricity. Nursing leaders walked the floors checking on patients and staff and addressing any issues that came up. Pamela Considine, BSN, CCRN, executive director of inpatient nursing at Holy Cross, said she did not find one patient who felt unsafe while rounding. 

“The nurses made the [patients] feel safe,” Ruggiero added.

Nurses at Holy Cross worked on either the A or B team, as is common for Florida nurses. Both A-team shifts stayed at the hospital during the storm and the B team relieved them, once it was safe to travel. Some A-team nurses stayed into M as B-team nurses had difficulty making it in. 

Holy Cross set up quiet units, so nurses working the night shift could rest before reporting for duty. The hospital opened the exercise area and dietary extended cafeteria hours and set out food for people working during the night. 

“It was almost like a big summer camp,” said Ruggiero. “When you were working, you were working, but when you were off, there was camaraderie, hanging out in the lounge, eating together and going to the gym together.”

That bonding helped keep everything running smoothly at Holy Cross. 

“Everybody tried to find a way to say, ‘Yes,’” Ruggiero said. “There was a feeling that we were in this together, and we were a family.”

Evacuations without missing a beat

North Bay Hospital in the BayCare health system evacuated patients to other hospitals in the system, as did a nonaffiliated hospital, a long-term acute care hospital, skilled nursing and assisted-living facilities in the area, and shelters. Nurses at North Bay called nurses at the receiving hospital. They were on the same electronic medical record, so details were available. 

“It was amazing to watch the process,” Johnson said. “It was well thought out and took teamwork.”

North Bay nurses went with their patients to Morton Plant Hospital and stayed to care for those patients. BayCare hospitals also used the A- and B-team approach.

Helping during honeymoons, and in every way possible

Nurse HoneymoonAt St. Joseph’s Hospital-North in Lutz, a nurse manager got married on Saturday and came to work on her honeymoon. 

“She went from her wedding dress to her scrubs in a matter of a few hours and stayed throughout the hurricane,” Johnson said.   

One patient wrote to The Daisy Foundation, nominating the nurses for the care they provided and saying you would never know there was a storm happening. 

[Picture: Team members spelled out the word “honeymoon” for Anne, a nurse who came in during her honeymoon to help during Hurricane Irma. Photo courtesy BayCare.]  

“People were scared, but their spirits were high,” Johnson said. “If we stay calm, the patients stay calm.”

For nurses in Hurricane Irma, the little things mattered. Many nurses lacked power at home. One nurse with power offered to help a nurse without and washed her scrubs for her. Nurses cared for colleagues’ children in their homes. Other nurses cooked and brought in food for their colleagues without power. 

“It was amazing teamwork,” Johnson said. “Whatever needed to be done, if you could help, you were there.”

Volunteer service to the community

FIU faculty and graduate student nurses in Hurricane Irma volunteered at two emergency departments during the storm. The graduate student RNs worked as RNs and the faculty as nurse practitioners. 

Patients showed up with injuries, heart attacks and other symptoms. The hospitals were so busy that patients were being treated in the halls. Staff members were overwhelmed, and the hospital nurses were grateful for the collaboration and helping hands. 

“The volume was impressive,” Gordon said. “We were able to decompress loads in the emergency room.”

The FIU nurses worked 12-hour shifts. Some patients noticed the nurses were not from the hospital, but they felt comfortable seeing the temporary credentials.

“They were grateful for whoever took them in,” Gordon said. “You see a new crew coming in, and there was gratitude.”

Working side by side with their instructors toward a common goal also gave the nursing students a new perspective. 

“It was a nice feeling from the students, the faculty and the staff in the hospital.” said Gordon, adding, “When things strike home, it’s always good for the community to see we are here.”

Florida nurses understand this will not be the last storm they will face together. We all know that banding together is the only way to survive these monster storms.

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