FINISHING MY degree in sociology in Houston, I didn't have a clue about what I'd be doing after I graduated. Then, at the end of August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.
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I sat in my car listening to the radio, learning about the devastation and the people who were killed. I remember hearing about the levees in New Orleans being breached. I sat and listened, crying for people I didn't know, sharing their sadness the only way I could.
A few days later, the people who'd been sheltered at the Louisiana Superdome were bussed to Houston, where the old Astrodome had been turned into a makeshift shelter. I was helping there the night the first buses arrived. With other volunteers, I walked down the enormous concrete ramp into the dome and was hit with a wave of noise and confusion generated by the 20,000 people inside. Many of them had spent the last 3 days on a freeway overpass in extreme heat with no facilities, no water, and nowhere to go.
That feeling of overwhelming desolation remains with me in perfect detail. It was raw and intense, and I wanted to turn around. What could I possibly do to help these people whose need was so great? At the same time, though, I knew I had to do something, anything, for these people who'd already been through so much.
I met a woman who didn't know whether her husband and son had made it out of New Orleans-or even if they were still alive. Hundreds of posters were tacked on every available surface: people looking for loved ones and trying to tell their families where they were and that they were okay.
I helped give away clean clothes and apologized over and over when I couldn't even find a T-shirt or a pair of underwear. So many people needed so much, and we had so little to give. We gave and gave, and it still wasn't enough.
Human spirit shines through
I saw much more than devastation, though. I saw and experienced many examples of human compassion. I watched one man give away his spare pair of pants, the only extra clothing he owned, to someone in greater need.
I didn't find the frustration, anger, and impatience in the evacuees that I expected. Instead, I was treated with kindness, patience, and gratitude by every single person. Although these people were tired and dirty, they all treated me respectfully.
The volunteers, too, worked with a fluid cooperation without much leadership, especially that first night. When something needed doing, someone did it. When people needed help, they asked for and received it without complaint. By the end of that week, so many people came to volunteer that the Red Cross had to turn hundreds away.
My computer expert friends created a registration database with names and predisaster addresses, organized so people could easily search for family members. The local community donated clothing and money.
Nurses, physicians, and pharmacists came after their shifts at the medical center to help. On that first night and on the many nights that followed, everyone gave of themselves, even those who seemingly had nothing to give.
Even before the hurricane, I'd known that I wanted a career helping people. When I watched a friend's mother-an RN-organize a triage area and help several hundred people get the medical care and the medications they needed, a new career choice began to take shape in my mind.
This nurse saw a need, then organized equipment and people to fill the need as fully and efficiently as possible. Her education and experience let her see what ought to be done and to do it. We all did what we could to help, but she could help many more people-and really help them-because she was a nurse.
Caring for people
Because of that experience, I'm now a nursing student. I'm often asked why I chose nursing school rather than medical school, and my answer is simple. I don't want to cure or fix anything. I just want to care for people.
I want to take the incredible empathy and love I saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and live it every day, not just when disaster strikes. The hurricane changed who I am and who I want to be. I came out of the experience with an absolutely unshakable faith in the inherent goodness of the human spirit and the resilience of the human heart.
No other profession embraces the inherent value of every person the way nursing does. Nursing at its core is a celebration, a support, and an advocacy of humanity as a whole and of each human being as an individual.
I don't know yet what type of nurse I'll be or where I'll work. But I know that no matter what, when the next disaster hits, I'll be ready. And in the meantime, I'll do my best to share with my patients the beauty I found after the storm.
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