U nursing student aids in Pentagon recovery effort

by Sam Kean

The e-mail Carolyn Garcia received Sept. 12 didn’t surprise her. As soon as the planes hit, she knew she and other Red Cross disaster health services volunteers would be called east.

Though recently married, teaching two classes and taking two more, the University nursing doctoral student said she had no choice but to join her third disaster relief project since 1994.

After waiting until early on Sunday, Sept. 16, and being told her destination only hours before, Garcia flew out to Red Cross Disaster Relief project No. 788 in Washington, D.C. – DR788 at the Pentagon.

“Everyone just had this fear on them,” Garcia said. She’d briefly lived there as an intern in 1998, but this time, some people refused to go to work or even drive into the city for weeks.

By the time Garcia arrived in Washington, victims of the Pentagon attack had been cared for medically. So, the Red Cross assigned the three nurses on her team to follow up with the peripheral victims: the families of those in the Pentagon.

While eight families monitored their loved ones’ progress at the Washington Hospital Center’s intensive care burn unit, Garcia’s team counseled them, visited homes and provided other needed and often-overlooked comforts.

Celebrities and professional football players visited the families and patients, but sometimes the constant stream was too much for them, Garcia said. Often they asked the stars for time alone.

“But they never said for the nurses to give them space,” Garcia said. “The look of relief on their faces was … amazing.”

Though she left some responsibilities behind, there was never any question whether Garcia would be allowed to go, said Nursing School Dean Sandra Edwardson.

No one else associated with the School of Nursing left for relief efforts, but by helping to cover Garcia’s classes and ensuring she could go, faculty aided in their own way, Edwardson said.

“It was the way the whole faculty could participate, vicariously.”

Garcia’s competence in disaster-related clinical settings and her compassion when counseling probably led the Red Cross to select her over other volunteers, Edwardson said. Garcia was one of 1,128 volunteers at DR788 – New York, Pennsylvania and other sites had more volunteers. Of those, Garcia estimated 30 were nurses; overall, Minnesota sent 37 volunteers to sites in New York and Washington.

Besides the scope of the project, Garcia said her role in DR788 also differed from her past disaster relief experiences.

Normally, she might assist in finding new pairs of glasses or new pill prescriptions after tornadoes or floods destroyed them – as she did in Wisconsin in 1994 and Puerto Rico in 1996.

This time, no homes were destroyed and Garcia’s hours were spent with families, sometimes just talking to make sure everything was all right.

Throughout her stay, Garcia had to face her own fears of a follow-up incident, too. Helicopters circling her hotel at night woke her a number of times, she said.

Often she sought refuge in the hotel fitness room, working out to relieve stress.

One night, even exercise couldn’t help. Instead of running on the treadmill, Garcia decided to climb 100 floors – the approximate height of the World Trade Centers before they collapsed – on the stair master as fast as she could. It took 10 full minutes.

“This is what the people felt like,” she said to herself as she climbed. And that’s without all the equipment some rescue workers had to carry.

Of the eight patients in the burn unit, one died during her stay. Others improved considerably. She returned last Sunday to a proud husband and classes at the University. But after last night, she didn’t use the stair master during the rest of her stay at DR788.