by Traci Chapman, Staff Writer
It might be something as routine as a marathon or as jarring as a tornado aftermath, providing simple aid or walking the tight walk between life and death – but for volunteers with Oklahoma Medical Reserve Corps, whatever they might face is all in a day’s work.
“At its core level, the Medical Reserve Corps’ primary objective is providing a system to organize and train both medical and non-medical individuals, who work to support ongoing responses to emergency and other situations,” OKMRC state coordinator Lezlie Carter said earlier this year. “A major distinction is that these are all volunteers – in fact, MRC is the only medical/public health volunteer program in the state – and these are people working in units throughout the state, people who come together to work during and after emergency situations that might not even impact their own community.”
Those situations could be everything from the planned manning of a marathon medical tent to coming to the aid of victims of both natural and man-made disasters, Carter said.
Even in those instances that might on the surface seem routine, situations can be deceptively complex, at times, said Loren Stein, OKMRC volunteer nurse coordinator.
“For an example, we might only provide fluids and the like during a marathon – the need depends quite a bit on the temperature,” Stein said. “Then, the year the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon was postponed to a later date, we had IV’s running and beds up and down, because of the heat.
“And, in 2008, we manned big shelters due to Hurricane Gustav and hosted 1,700 guests from Louisiana,” she said. “It’s very much about adapting to the situation.”
With medical professionals and lay people as different as the situations encountered by OKMRC volunteers, it is perhaps in its nursing contingent that the strength of the organization lies. Statewide, more than 1,200 of those who dedicate their time and talent to the Medical Reserve Corps are registered nurses, Stein said.
“That’s about one-quarter of all volunteers,” she said. “Registered nurses volunteer – that’s just what they do.”
Nurses are also at the center of a partnership between OKMRC and Oklahoma Nurses Association, coordinating a registry of nurse volunteers available at a time of disaster, an effort that spreads beyond the usual volunteer force, encompassing not only full-time nurses, but also those who work part-time, are retired or even still attending nursing school.
OKMRC can offer those students opportunities they might not see otherwise while still in school, opportunities made possible by the OKMRC externship.
“It’s a chance for nursing students to learn about, develop and apply public health nursing skills that focus on emergency preparedness, response and recovery,” Stein said.
Launched in 2015 under Stein’s leadership at University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center Fran and Earl Ziegler College of Nursing, the program has since its inception expanded to include students at University of Central Oklahoma, Southwestern Oklahoma State University and Northwestern Oklahoma State University – and in 2017, a record 23 students took part in the summer program, Stein said.
“It is a multi-faceted program, including team building, as well as giving them leadership opportunities, ways of looking at public health and emergency situations,” she said. “At the same time, nursing students have a chance to interact with those younger – 8th graders and then high school seniors – students who are interested in nursing, and they can become role models.”
Externs get an overview of OKMRC volunteers do in emergency situations – triage, mass immunizations, critical care and patient monitoring on site, but the organization’s work moves far beyond the physical, Stein said.
“It’s called the Stress Response Team and it works together with physical medical care components to help those affected,” said Stein, who serves on the team’s advisory board. “They work with individuals who are dealing with stress and mental health issues they’re encountering as a result of a very specific situation – it might be that a teenage member of the family is missing in the wake of a tornado or a pet might be lost, and that impacts the entire family.”
SRT also works to address mental health issues of individuals that have nothing to do with an emergency situation – people who might be schizophrenic and who could, without proper medication or monitoring, become a danger to themselves or others, Stein said. SRT’s licensed mental health professionals work to diffuse a potential situation before it even happens.
Medical Reserve Corps was created in 2002 as part of USA Freedom Corps and administered by the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, officials said. The Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 dictates the federal umbrella of state MRC units, overseen nationally by the Office of the Civilian Volunteer Medical Reserve Corps.
In Oklahoma, the city of Tulsa’s MRC unit was the first in the state to obtain grant funding, from the state Department of Health and Human Services. That was in 2002, and Tulsa’s efforts began a domino-effect of activity that continued when Oklahoma Nurse’s Association, city of Oklahoma City and city of Lawton also became grant recipients.
In 2005, oversight of OKMRC was transferred from Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management to the state Department of Health. One of the strongest factors in OKMRC’s success is the people who work for and believe in the program, Stein said.
“Here you meet the kindest, most giving people who always give their best,” she said. “They work to make other peoples’ lives better no matter what the particular situation might be.” Volunteers are always needed by OKMRC, Carter and Stein said. More information about the agency is available on its website, www.okmrc.org.
by Traci Chapman, Staff Writer