Shelter from the storm

Nursing students are helping emergency preparedness agencies develop a plan to care for elderly and disabled people during a natural disaster such as an earthquake or severe winter storm.

Nine juniors in the nursing program at Oregon Health & Science University at Southern Oregon University are writing a plan for taking care of "vulnerable populations" who shouldn't be isolated in their homes, said Connie Saldana, who works with Rogue Valley Council of Governments senior and disabled services program.

The project is designed to serve some 19,000 people who may be mentally ill, blind, deaf, bipolar, schizophrenic, confined to a wheelchair or on kidney dialysis.

The nursing students are creating a database that will be part of Jackson County's emergency operations plan. The information will allow first responders to quickly locate vulnerable people and determine whether they should remain in their homes or be taken to shelters set up by the American Red Cross, said Heather Freiheit, a nursing instructor in the OHSU program at SOU.

Freiheit said her students' planning is the first such detailed assessment in the state, and will help the Red Cross set up separate emergency shelter areas for vulnerable people.

Without a disaster preparedness plan, vulnerable people may become disoriented and frightened and wind up in hospital emergency rooms, instead of getting appropriate care in shelters, she said.

Along with getting vulnerable populations on the registry, patients will each be given a "ready book" that contains their photograph and a list of their service animals, medications, and family contacts, along with ID bands and a checklist of their "to-go kit," as well as items they would need if they chose to remain at home.

"People will often forget such things in emergencies," Freiheit said. "And if they're prepared, they can keep from going to hospitals. There's a surge of patients going to hospitals (in times of disaster), and they don't need to go. If they're on the registry, that's huge. The goal is to get them to stay in their own home if they can."

Should vulnerable people need transportation to shelters, it will be prearranged for a family member to drive them — or the county Emergency Operations Center will do it, she said.

The project marks the first time that the OHSU nursing program has been drawn into emergency preparedness. In an emergency, nurses could be working with large numbers of people, rather than just a few patients, Freiheit noted.

"A lot of people assume the government has everything in place to take care of them," nursing student Tim Dougherty said, "and governments assume people have things in place. This bridges that gap."

Nursing student Taira Butler said focusing on the big picture "is a little overwhelming — so much more complex than taking care of seven people."

The effort is being coordinated with Jackson County Department of Health and Human Services, the Red Cross, the Rogue Valley Council of Governments and the OHSU nursing school.

Saldana said the plan has been needed for some time. "We've needed to have a plan, especially with the shelters, so we're pulling that piece together. They haven't been set up to deal with people with care needs, people who can't go to the bathroom, bathe, get dressed or who need oxygen. We need to think ahead."

The plan goes beyond present preparedness for vulnerable populations, and sets a model for the state, said Beth Depew, the coordinator for Jackson and Josephine counties for hospitals and health care systems preparedness.

So far, about 500 people have been registered. Vulnerable persons or their family members may sign up at the website www.rvcog.org. To register, click on the disaster registry heading in the left column and follow instructions.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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