UAB works to help its own, community

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Wednesday, April 27 sent violently swirling gray clouds of death and destruction throughout central and northern Alabama.

UAB nursing student Alyssa Jordan Ward volunteered at Scott Elementary School in Pratt City this past week sorting donated items for victims of the April 27 tornado. She is a member of the UAB Cares volunteer group that partnered with Hands on Birmingham.

More than 100 tornadoes touched down in the state that day. More than 236 Alabamians were killed. More than 1,000 were injured, and thousands of residents lost everything. Although UAB’s Southside campus was spared, the deadly outbreak touched lives across the UAB community.

A campus in an urban setting, UAB draws many of its faculty, staff and students from hard-hit areas such as Pratt City, Pleasant Grove, Fultondale, Concord, Cordova, Cullman and Tuscaloosa. In the hours and days since the storm, the university community has demonstrated that its faculty, staff, students, neighbors and friends are not defined by the storm damage, but their response to it

The help began immediately with UAB medical personnel at work in the field. Emergency medicine physician Sarah Nafziger, M.D., headed for the shattered Pratt City neighborhood as soon as the tornadoes passed. Joining first responders from around the region, she worked all night to triage patients. Nafziger, who trains UAB medical students in emergency medicine and is the medical director for several EMS units in Birmingham, was amazed at the “widespread destruction” she saw. She says it reminded her of her experiences in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.

Victims poured into the emergency department at UAB Hospital for much of that Wednesday evening. In all, 134 patients were treated, including 40 with major traumas and 23 who were admitted to the intensive-care unit. Staff added 14 beds to manage the influx by creating an auxiliary ICU.

“The injuries were remarkable,” says Loring Rue, M.D., chief of trauma surgery at UAB Hospital. Debris tossed through the air by the devastating winds created wounds consistent with high-speed car crashes, he said.

As the darkness gave way to the light of Thursday, April 28, the width and breadth of the damage became evident; people across UAB began to mobilize. A four-day blood drive that began in North Pavilion collected 509 units, and a weeklong Nurses Week Blood Drive collected 547 units — a total 1,056 units in less than 10 days.

The UAB Benevolent Fund immediately established a Tornado Relief Fund to aid faculty, staff and students affected by the disaster. To date, 71 different individuals or families have received $65,030 in aid. Included in that 71 are 14 students and two who are students and employees.

UAB Benevolent Fund Program Manager Lisa Higginbotham says the group worked to streamline the process to make it easier to get funds to those who needed them as quickly as possible.

“We’ve tried to work with employees to get whatever documentation they can provide, whether it’s from the Red Cross, FEMA, insurance claims, photographs of their house with the street number, hospital or emergency room reports — whatever we can get to document that and try and get them some immediate assistance to help stabilize their situation,” Higginbotham says. “We’re trying our best to give people what they need so they can have clothing, toiletries, a safe place to stay, transportation to and from work — whatever they feel is their most immediate need — so they can start to rebuild.”

UAB and Sodexo/Campus Restaurants also made it possible for students to donate a portion of their Dining Dollars at any Campus Restaurants check-out register using their CampusCard until May 31; all monies go into the Tornado Relief Fund.

Online donations to the fund from have generated more than $85,500 — $28,100 of which have been donated online. One man in Brazil, whose sister attended UAB a decade ago, contacted to the school to find out how to donate online.

Because of the storms, the Benevolent Fund’s annual April campaign now has been extended through the end of May. Money pledged by UAB employees supports more than 120 non-profit organizations in the Birmingham metro area, including the American Red Cross-Mid Alabama Region, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity and the Amelia Center — organizations that have spent or will spend considerable resources to aid the area during recovery.

“The current storm relief efforts are helping with immediate needs, but needs of this community are going to be significantly increased over the next several years,” Higginbotham says. “The work is just beginning. It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon.”

‘Massive’ impact

Andy Marsch, assistant vice president for Student Life, says he’s seen just about everything in his 28 years at UAB. But this event? He says its impact on the UAB community is “massive.”

Marsch spent that Wednesday night and the next several days reaching out to students personally affected. “I’ve got 30 students on the list right now,” he says eight days after the tornadoes struck. “In five minutes it will be more because it’s changing that quick.”

What has he heard from students? Their homes are gone. Or their family’s home is destroyed. Close family members — even parents in some cases — were killed. Marsch and members of his staff have tried every way they can to get in touch with them.

“We want to let them know resources are available to help them,” Marsch says. “UAB cares about them, and they are part of our family. We want them to know that.”

Another of Student Life’s early roles was to contact professors on behalf of students affected by the storms. Some students were given the opportunity to take a grade of incomplete in their courses until they are able to schedule a time to take their finals.

“Our faculty have been great,” Marsch says. “They’ve done a great job working with our students and reassuring them.”

The School of Medicine, for example, identified several medical students who sustained major losses, including loss of homes and vehicles. The Medical Alumni Association agreed to aid the affected students with emergency financial help through its Medical Student Assistance Fund.

Marsch’s role has shifted a bit since the early days after the storm.

“The conversations I’m having are changing,” he says. “At this point they’ve heard about some resources and are starting to think about talking to a counselor. It’s hard because the further you go and the more stories you hear from students, the more difficult situations you hear about. It keeps growing, and at some point you wonder when is it going to stop growing? I don’t know when that is.”

The response from the UAB family, Marsch says, has been overwhelming. Faculty, staff and students have offered to help through donations, volunteering their time and setting up mechanisms to help others.

“From medical students to Greek organizations, to student government and individual employees — all were reaching out,” he says. “I cannot say enough about the response of the many people reaching out to help our students.”

‘Unrelenting resolve’

Groups from all corners of campus stepped up in various ways. Volunteers from UAB’s eight sorority and fraternity chapters in the National Pan-Hellenic Council and other student groups collected bottled water, clothes and other necessities.

Hospital Laboratories, which holds an annual Hospital Laboratory Week Luncheon, donated its warm meals April 28 to the Christian Service Center. As a result, more than 400 first responders and residents within the Pratt City and Pleasant Grove areas had a 12-seat van full of warm food, fruit and vegetables delivered to them in the field.

Instead of hosting the planned Chili Cook-Off to benefit the Benevolent Fund April 28, UAB Hospital employees donated 180 gallons of chili to the Red Cross/Emergency Management Agency mobile kitchen. The mobile kitchen received and distributed the food to first responders and victims from the storms. The cook off also raised $3,700 despite its cancellation.

For Mother’s Day, the National Alumni Society honored 32 displaced mothers living temporarily at Boutwell Auditorium with bouquets and gift cards for a free lunch at Jim ‘n Nick’s, a small but welcomed gesture of encouragement and hope.

UAB faculty, staff and students responded with swift determination in the hours and days following the event. And as UAB President Carol Garrison wrote in her weekly online President’s Post Monday, May 2, there will be an ongoing need to continue to respond with “unrelenting resolve to restore hope and rebuild our communities.”

Faculty, staff and students are showing they will be there every step of the way.

The Public Health Student Association, headed by Emily Capilouto, is holding a donation drive throughout the summer. Recognizing that the need is great and will be ongoing, they are coordinating with hard-hit areas across the state and identifying the needs of each individual site. They will then send the requested items collected directly to the sites. They are encouraging donations of personal hygiene and care items, non-perishable food items, baby care items and cleanup items (rakes, shovels, gloves, etc.). Visit their UAB PHSA Facebook page or email for more information.

UAB student Katelyn Armstrong’s Blazers for Birmingham Facebook army also is preparing ways to continue their efforts to aid the community.

Meetings with fellow USGA members have led to numerous projects and ideas. A benefit music concert is being planned and at least one big universitywide service day per month through the fall are being set.

The group also is looking into creating a partnership with their counterparts at the University of Alabama to see how the groups can help each other.

“Everyone is excited to volunteer in the beginning, but this is a marathon, not a sprint,” Armstrong says. “Our classmates, friends, family and communities are going to need help for a long time. We want to be there every step of the way.”

Editors note: Have a storm-related story you want to share? Use the Request Publicity form on or share on UAB’s Facebook page or UAB’s GreenMail Facebook page.

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