Faculty and students care for the state’s storm victims

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When Kevin Taylor phoned Jerry King from Cullman Friday, April 29, he needed help, and he needed it fast.

(From left to right) UAB Surgical Physician Assistant faculty Kerry Whitaker, students Dawn Winslow, Felipe Valencia, Vincent Baglini, Laura Nugent and Matt Carrol and faculty Paul Harrelson were among the UAB volunteers who worked at The Sanctuary at the Woodlands hospital in Cullman after the April 27 tornadoes.

King, director of critical education for UAB Respiratory Program, was having lunch with colleague Kerry Whitaker, assistant professor and didactic coordinator of the Surgical Physician Assistant Program, when the call came. Taylor, a friend of King’s and the respiratory director at Cullman Regional Medical Center said the staff at nearby The Sanctuary at the Woodlands hospital had opened a shelter two days earlier for displaced storm victims in need of care. The staff had been working nonstop for almost 48 hours, and they needed relief.

King and Whitaker immediately contacted students and colleagues. Whitaker had a schedule made for the volunteers within two hours. By that evening, King and several others were on site.

“It was a great relief to see them here,” says Charlotte Ivey, administrator at Woodlands. “We were spent. And they were very helpful to us. They stepped right in, they weren’t afraid of doing any work, and they were very good to our community.”

More than 15 faculty, staff and students volunteered their time at Woodlands for four days. At its peak, the Woodlands had more than 25 storm victims who sought continuous shelter at its facility. Many other storm victims without power in their homes came in and out of the facility during the day for breathing treatments and equipment checks or to recharge batteries.

The volunteers checked vital signs, helped resolve problems with breathing machines and oxygen tanks, checked tank levels and helped charge wheelchairs; they encouraged patients on chronic oxygen to stay at the center because it had power.

“We were also able to assess several patients who came for medical care and sent some of them to the hospital, but most of what we did was basic care,” King says.

“Most of the patients were self-sufficient, and we provided a hospitality service of sorts,” Whitaker says. “We took them cold water and made sure they had something to eat.”

Junior respiratory students Ashley Glaze and Janie Huddleston were among the students who volunteered to travel to Cullman Sunday, May 1. Glaze, a Gardendale native whose family has a home on Smith Lake, says the car ride from Birmingham was an anxious one. Both students were eager to help the storm victims, but they weren’t sure if they knew enough to be of real value.

“We’ve learned a lot,” Glaze says, “but we haven’t been able to apply much of it. In the hospital clinics, we’re only allowed to do a handful of things. Our knowledge isn’t that extensive.

“But everything they needed to know — from the physician assistant students to the nurses to the patients — we were able to answer,” she says. “We actually got to have something like a teaching session between the nurses and physician assistants because they would frequently ask questions about oxygen tanks or medicines or vital signs. It was interesting to see how much we did know and how much we could use what we had learned in our training to this point.”

While Glaze and Huddleston might have been surprised, King was not. The experience was a valuable opportunity for the students to apply their basic knowledge and training.

“I heard it said no matter how much training you get, it never prepares you for what you see,” King says. “But an event like this does let you see what you’ve learned can be effective and useful. It’s definitely not a typical way to train; we don’t have a disaster clinic set up so we can go work in it. So it’s an eye-opening event to see what’s required in a disaster.”

Glaze credits the faculty in respiratory therapy; she says she saw that her professors are preparing them well.

“We utilized absolutely everything from every class we have taken so far, from the basic procedures in our lab to Mr. King teaching us how to calculate how much oxygen is left in a tank,” Glaze says. “From taking vital signs to the basic essentials all the way down to anatomy and physiology, we knew what we were doing. They’ve prepared us so well so far, and it was really neat to realize that.”

Among the surgical physician assistant faculty to volunteer were Program Director Patricia Jennings, Dr.P.H., Clinical Coordinator Paul Harrelson and Whitaker. Whitaker’s wife Kathy, an X-ray tech, also joined the group as did Womens & Infants Center Nurse Christy Meadows.

Thirteen surgical physician assistant students also assisted for four days, including Hoover native Helen Alexander. She says the experience reinforced the responsibility she has to help her community.

“I think it is every student’s dream to use what we know to help another person, especially in such a desperate situation,” Alexander says. “The people who came to Woodlands had no where else to go, and medical staff in the area were overwhelmed. My role was to care for those who could not care for themselves. I began to see my profession as more than a career. I see it as a life of service to people on the most basic level — to help them heal.”

Huddleston says the experience was invaluable to the student’s training.

“They were able to see that medicine encompasses treating patients and illness and also being available to patients,” he says. “Many of the students just talked to them and provided them an outlet to talk about the difficult situation they were experiencing. That was the most valuable lesson our students learned. I think what we did embodies the spirit of our profession.”

Alexander says she is grateful the faculty made an effort to find a need in their area and organized a way for students to assist. Alexander says the rigors of their training paid off.

“The PA program is tough, there’s no denying it,” Alexander says. “But that day in Cullman, I was so grateful to all who contribute to my education. It was a reality check that we are working hard for a reason, and that reason is to help people and save lives. And it is so worth it.”

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