Dis­as­ter ex­pert earns schol­ar­ship

Kapi-Mana News - - NEWS - By KARO­LINE TUCKEY

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.

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