Disaster expert earns scholarship
Helping those who help when disasters strike is what drives Whitby woman Frances Hughes, who has been part of the medical response at some of the last decade’s worst disasters.
A doctor in mental health nursing, she was recently bestowed a prestigious Fulbright New Zealand Senior Scholar Award to carry out research in the United States.
Dr Hughes says our medical practitioners need to have the best possible knowledge and support to hold the front line in crisis situations.
Her passion was ignited by her own experiences at the front line at several major disasters.
In 2001 she had just arrived in New York on September 11 when the city was plunged into panic by terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center. She headed straight to the hospital where she could best lend her skills.
After the 2005 Boxing Day tsunami she was part of the New Zealand contingent that helped out in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and earlier this year she volunteered her time to assist medical staff working with earthquake victims after the February 22 Christchurch earthquake.
‘‘The poor old people at the first points like A & E who are dealing with people in distress, the poor people, they carry it.
‘‘ They volunteered, and put their work over themselves and their own families.
‘‘These people have skills or positions where their skills are vitally needed, and of course they always do turn up when all this stuff’s going on, that’s what’s amazed me.’’
Different disasters bring different problems.
Dr Hughes says many of the medical staff who rushed to New York hospitals found when very few survivors were brought in for treatment workers were struck with guilt that they had not done more for direct victims.
They were also faced with the psychosocial effects of the widespread distress that resulted from the tragedy.
Indonesian medical professionals working in Banda Aceh worked on for weeks despite the knowledge for some that their towns and families had been wiped out, and medical professionals in Christchurch worked on knowing family or friends would have to collect their children from school and comfort them.
Medical practitioners need to have a practical plan to allow them to be available, to be equipped to look after their own wellbeing while their role puts them under stress, she says. They also need to be able to understand the psychological, physical and social effects of the disaster on direct victims as well as the impact it will have on the wider community they will be treating.
‘‘The psychosocial aspect’s going on longer than the broken bones. They are seeing people who may have a lot of their physical manifestations related to their psychological distress, and health professionals have got to understand that, and that there’s vulnerable groups that do need special attention – children and elderly, those with pre-existing mental illness.’’
The New Zealand health sector could do more to prepare its staff for the special set of stresses they may face in a disaster, she says.
‘‘I think educationally it’s ad hoc at best, there’s no structure, there’s no requirements to get this level of understanding.
‘‘They need more things in their own tool boxes to support themselves and others, because they are grieving and there’s psychosocial support skills they need to know to keep working in this. We have got to protect our health professionals from the stress and burnout and compassion fatigue.’’
The four- month Fulbright scholarship to study through Rutgers University in New Jersey next year will allow Dr Hughes to undertake a tour of the United States to meet academics and policy makers, and visit New Orleans and Hurricane Alley, to learn from their experiences and the practices they have developed.
‘‘There’s a lot more you can do to help prepare our health professionals, using the evidence of what’s good and what’s not good and when to intervene.’’
Disaster researcher: Whitby’s Frances Hughes has won a prestigious scholarship to research better ways to prepare New Zealand health professionals for working in disaster scenarios like she encountered in New York on September 11, 2001, in Banda Aceh after the Boxing Day tsunami, and after the Christchurch earthquake earlier this year.