Filling basic needs like preparing and distributing meals and setting up emergency shelters in the immediate aftermath of a disaster is what the American Red Cross is best known for. Less well-known, but no less important, is the continued care for those affected that can last for weeks and even months after disaster strikes.
“I do a lot of follow-up for clients in terms of their health needs and mental health needs,” said Becky Hauserman, a registered nurse who has volunteered with the Western Ohio Red Cross chapter for 27 years as a disaster health expert.
Two to three times a week, she meets with survivors of disasters ranging from a devastating home fire; to late-winter flooding in central and southern Ohio; to a deadly school shooting in the community of Benton, Kentucky, in late January; to helping in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm that battered Florida last fall.
“It’s probably some of the hardest work I’ve ever done – physically and emotionally,” she said. “It’s very draining.”
Follow-up can include routine medical aid such as re-dressing wounds or evaluating how someone is healing, or securing replacement medical equipment such as canes, walkers, eyeglasses, nebulizers and even medication.
“It’s also the most rewarding work I’ve ever done, because I feel like we are really helping people,” Becky added.
And there are less-obvious health needs, too, that can be more difficult to talk about and identify. The grief, stress and trauma that often accompany surviving a disaster are just as real as the physical wounds and injuries, and sometimes more difficult to recover from.
“We talk a lot about normal stress reactions,” said Becky, a psychiatric nurse at a general hospital who happens to specialize in emergency management, a career path that makes her uniquely suited for her volunteer responsibilities with the Red Cross.
“A lot of things that they [are experiencing] are normal, but they can’t sleep, or aren’t sleeping well. Or they want to eat everything in sight. Or they feel shaky, or can’t focus,” she said. “Those things are normal, and a lot of folks are relieved to hear that. So we talk about what is a normal response and what isn’t, when to reach out for additional help, or when to call 9-1-1.”
And her work is more than just dealing with personal crisis, too, she says; it’s about making sure that everyone feels supported and cared for during a disaster. That’s no small task when you’re charged with most of southern Florida, as she was in the wake of Hurricane Irma’s landfall.
“We provide mental health services to everyone because everyone feels the effects of a major disaster,” she said, including volunteers themselves.
“We want our volunteer workers to know that we care about them, too. We want to be there for everyone, every step of the way. It’s really about caring for the whole community so we can keep other crises from developing,” Becky said.
And despite decades of service already logged, and the intense focus and demanding nature of her volunteer work, she has no plans to slow down.
“In fact, if I was retired this is what I’d be doing even more,” she said. “It’s very rewarding to be able to go into a community and really reach people and connect with them and help them.”
Could you see yourself helping someone get back to normal after a fire or other disaster? Or maybe you would rather help military families stay in touch while a member is on active duty. Maybe you enjoy driving and would like to transport blood products to local hospitals to help save lives. These are just a few of the ways that Red Cross volunteers make a difference every day.
The Red Cross relies on volunteers to make up more than 90 percent of its workforce. You can be a part of the team, too, and make a difference at the site of a major disaster or right in your own community. To find out how you can help, visit http://www.redcross.org/volunteer/volunteer-opportunities