University of Texas at Austin nursing school leads effort in mass casualty education

July 25, 2002

AUSTIN, Texas—Not even Florence Nightingale could have anticipated the creation of a new course at The University of Texas at Austin called "Disaster Nursing."

The post-Sept. 11 look to the School of Nursing's curriculum content began this summer with second-semester classes (July 15-Aug. 16). The school is one of the first in the country to offer a course on how to tend to victims of a mass casualty event.

"If a mass casualty event like those of Sept. 11 occurs in Austin or anywhere else in the state, nurses at every level will be called upon to employ emergency response skills," said Dolores Sands, dean of the School of Nursing. "Though nursing has had little training or experience with treating victims of weapons of mass destruction — we want our students to be ready."

In the university's elective class, which is open to undergraduate and graduate students, the structure and organization of health management in disaster response is taught.

Students are learning everything from how to decontaminate victims at an incident site to how to recognize and treat the psychological impact of a mass casualty event on victims and health care professionals. After the course, they also will able to perform effective triage, appropriately handle human remains, transport victims and complete recovery operations, including reports and debriefings.

Entry team member Michele Mata, a senior in nursing, is fitted with an oxygen mask and tank

Entry team member Michele Mata, a senior in nursing, is fitted with an oxygen mask and tank. In a real-life situation, the entry team would have the highest risk of exposure and require the most protective gear.

A mock disaster response drill was held July 25 on the patio of the nursing school. Students, wearing protective clothing participated in a simulation of a patient extraction from a contaminated site. There also were stations set up to highlight the role of the nurse in preventing responder stress and safety. One student served as a public information officer and answered questions from the news media.

A scenario was set up specifically for the mock response drill: A tractor trailer had overturned on interstate highway 35 near the 12th Street exit in Austin. Five hundred gallons of the hazardous chemical, parathion, had spilled onto the interstate. Two occupants of the tractor trailer were injured and non-responsive. Winds were out of the southwest at 8-10 miles per hour.

"It's what we came here to do," said nursing student Mary Truong. Another student, Brooke Reitmann, said she wanted to learn more about disaster training after the events of Sept. 11.

"If a mass casualty event occurs where I live, I want to do what I can to help," she said.

Medical control officer Brooke Butler, a senior in nursing, examines the patient and interviews him

Medical control officer Brooke Butler, a senior in nursing, examines the patient and interviews him for more details about his possible level of exposure.

"We developed this course as a direct response to the events of Sept. 11," said Dr. Marilyn Pattillo, who is teaching the course. "We always have taught public health nursing, emergency room nursing, etc., but now it's a whole new ballgame."

Not only will nurses be at the forefront of treating victims of a mass casualty disaster, they could the first respondents in a biological terror event "because we see the rash first," said Pattillo.

"Nurses are everywhere — in schools, in public health, hospitals, offices, industries and businesses — and we need to know what to do," she said. "If a mass casualty event occurs, every nurse should be available to employ emergency response skills."

Learning how to deal with the psychological impact of terrorist strike is particularly important, Pattillo said.

"A bioterrorist event is different from all other forms of terrorism because of its potential to create panic and civic disorder," she said.

Earlier this year, Sands was appointed to the International Nursing Coalition for Mass Casualty Education, a new coalition based at Vanderbilt University and comprised of international nursing, medical, military and education experts. Members of the group began looking at how to change curriculum for current students and through continuing education.

Public Information Officer Glory Dewitt, a graduate student in public health nursing, answers questions for the media

Public Information Officer Glory Dewitt, a graduate student in public health nursing, answers questions for the media.

Pattillo has lined up numerous speakers for the course, including a terrorism officer from the National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center, the director of emergency management for the city of Austin, a member of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the head of the emergency preparedness division of the Texas Department of Health and various experts on bioterrorism. Bill Coll, director of medical operations with the Austin Fire Department, also will speak.

On Aug. 1, students will be learning how to splint, dress wounds and treat eye injuries during a standard first-aid session.

"Like most disaster concepts, this course is divided into three areas — preparedness, response and recovery," said Pattillo, who is retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserve Nurses Corp and is active in American Red Cross disaster health services.As students learn from other disciplines, the speakers also will be learning from nursing, Pattillo said. "So, there actually will be a two-way learning effort going on," she said.

For further information contact: Nancy Neff, Office of Public Affairs, 512-471-6504.