The EMU volunteer group to Mississippi held a debriefing session after returning to campus (Standing, l. to r.): Hadley Jenner, Aaron Schmucker, Sue Klassen, Don Tyson. Front: Kara Glick, Amanda Maust, Cara Danette Salmon, Monica Hensley, Emily Dye. Absent: Carla Simmons-Wulin.
Photo by Jim Bishop
A group of Eastern Mennonite University senior nursing students and two professors who spent two weeks doing volunteer health care work through the American Red Cross among flood victims in Mississippi experienced a mixture of grief and joy among the many people they met.
The eight students, along with Don Tyson and Sue Klassen of the EMU nursing faculty, left Harrisonburg Sept. 19 for the Gulf Coast region, along with 17 students and a faculty member from neighboring James Madison University.
Students Amanda Maust, Aaron Schmucker, Cara Salmon, Kara Glick, Hadley Jenner, Monica Hensley, Carla Simmons-Wulin and Emily Dye and their instructors first went to the regional Red Cross headquarters in Montgomery, Ala., for orientation before being deployed.
Klassen took four students to Brookhaven, Miss., and Tyson took four students to McComb, Miss. In both places they provided health services at temporary Red Cross Service Centers set up to distribute monetary funds to victims of the hurricane. Each service center saw 400-600 persons per day.
The groups’ goal was to perform health screenings (mostly blood pressure and glucose checks), treat persons with illnesses and provide counsel regarding health problems that were exacerbated by the hurricane.
Several of Klassen’s students also helped set up a Red Cross shelter following Hurricane Rita to help evacuees from Texas and Louisiana who came to that shelter.
As expected, the students’ experiences ran the gamut of emotions – personally and among the people they served, but what stood out, they all agreed, was "the remarkable expressions of gratitude and praise, even though most had lost everything they had."
"I didn’t know what kind of attitudes we’d encounter," said Emily M. Dye of Stephens City, Va. "The people seemed so grateful for any help they received and were just thankful to be alive."
The students said that they were able to observe "different approaches" to health care delivery in their shelter and service center settings. Several commented that while persons needed medical attention, "they were hesitant to seek it because of preoccupation with finding lost relatives or meeting other basic human needs."
Amanda A. Maust, Keezletown, Va., appreciated the opportunity to "see the Red Cross in action" through a host of volunteer workers. She called the two weeks "a great learning experience."
Aaron J. Schmucker, La Junta, Colo., said he felt "the frustration of a disaster situation," noting "all the things we take for granted were swept away," leaving flood victims to struggle with such things as getting groceries, medications and dealing with insurance loss.
In between working in the service centers, all group members had opportunity to see some of the coastline destruction firsthand, calling it "completely overwhelming."
Kara M. Glick, Columbiana, Ohio, said she dealt with "feelings of helplessness" as she became more aware of the need for more and better health care in the area even before the disaster struck.
"I was taken back by the number of people who would apologize for crying while they were being examined or treated," said Tyson, an assistant professor of nursing. "It was an opportunity for us to practice what we talk about in the classroom as the ‘concept of presence,’ trying to offer a listening ear and a caring attitude toward those we assisted."
Klassen, also an assistant professor of nursing, cited "the willingness of people to share their stories of what had happened to them" as a highlight of her time in Mississippi, adding that "there were some really great personnel on the health care team we worked with. We quickly bonded with them."
The group noted that they had "some anxious moments" at the midway point of their trip when Hurricane Rita moved through the Gulf of Mexico toward its eventual landfall on the Louisiana-Texas border.
"We were surprised that communication was better than expected there," Klassen said. "Our cell phones worked fine and we were able to stay in touch with people back home."
Added Tyson: "We were deluged with e-mails [from EMU and beyond] wanting to know how things were going. We sensed the concerns and prayer support of many people during our time there."