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The Rescuers

The Rescuers

The Rescuers

By Kara Bounds Socol

The grisly train wreck aftermath will be forever etched in Madison Johnson’s memory.

Johnson ’17, a San Antonio native and recent graduate of the Texas A&M College of Nursing, vividly recalls the screams and moans of victims as they writhed in pain or ran in panicked circles. Some were impaled by metal and glass; others had severe lacerations, amputated limbs and head injuries. The situation sent one passenger into labor and caused a heart attack in another.

Emergency responders had to maintain cool heads during the chaos to prioritize and treat the victims without the tools, supplies and medication readily available in a hospital. “It looked and felt so real,” Johnson later recalled of the Feb. 16 Disaster Day simulation. “It pushed students outside of their comfort zones, but taught them to think quickly on their feet.”

An Ideal Training Ground

Disaster Day was created by the College of Nursing in 2008 with 35 nursing student participants.  During its first nine years, the annual event took place in a church gym, where students faced mock scenarios such as an explosion and a tornado.

Disaster Day has gained momentum each year and now serves as a disaster-training exercise for Texas A&M nursing, medical, pharmacy, public health and veterinary medicine students. For this year’s 10th anniversary, organizers left the church gym behind and moved the event to a much more realistic setting: the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service’s (TEEX) Disaster City in College Station.

At Disaster City, the derailed train cars were real, as were the 200 Texas A&M Health Science Center (HSC) student volunteers who, during separate morning and afternoon shifts, posed as injured train passengers while approximately 450 student “emergency responders” tended to them or manned the Emergency Operations Center.

Health Science Center Disaster Day 2018

Interprofessional Training

Along with location, oversight of the student-led event also shifted this year to the HSC’s Office of Interprofessional Education and Research (IPER).

IPER executive director Christine Kaunas said the interprofessional nature of Disaster Day encourages students to better communicate and collaborate with those in other disciplines. The training exercise also touches on Texas A&M’s One Health initiative—a joint effort by the HSC and the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences that focuses on the interconnectedness of human, animal and environmental wellness.

Disaster Day offers a prime example of how emergency response goes far beyond rescuing victims and tending to wounds. In the case of a train wreck, for instance, what if an environmental toxin is leaking from a train car, contaminating both victims and responders? You would rely on the knowledge of a public health expert. What if a specific medication is urgently needed, but not on hand? That’s where pharmacists are called on to improvise. What if a service dog is wounded and separated from its owner? An emergency response-trained veterinarian should know what to do.

Disaster Day demonstrates that the human inclination to congregate with like-minded individuals can have fatal consequences in the chaos of an emergency situation. By focusing on interprofessionalism, the HSC and the veterinary school are countering “silo” tendencies by teaching students to comfortably interact with those in related but different fields.

“Students speak different languages in different health professions,” Kaunas explained. “Disaster Day provides the perfect opportunity for students to work together through chaotic environments and know their roles within a team. If we can work with students to develop these instincts, they’ll be better prepared for collaboration by the time they graduate.”

Angela Clendenin ’91, one of 70 Texas A&M faculty and staff members who served as advisers and volunteers at Disaster Day, agrees. “If we’re truly committed to the challenges of One Health, interprofessional education like this is how we’ll demonstrate its importance.”

  • In Training

    Student emergency responders tend to a student volunteer, posed as an injured train passenger.
  • Quick Thinking

    The Disaster Day simulation prepares across health professions to think on their feet and act efficiently in emergency situations.
  • The Aftermath

    Victims of the wreck had injuries ranging from severe lacerations to amputated limbs and head injuries.
  • Calm in the Chaos

    Emergency responders are taught to remain calm and treat victims without the supplies readily available inside a hospital.
  • Communication & Collaboration

    An emphasis on interprofessionalism teaches students to work with those in related but different fields.
  • Disaster Day in Disaster City

    This year's Disaster Day simulation took place in the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service's Disaster City in College Station.

How You Can Support Disaster Day

Moving from the church gym to Disaster City—and utilizing TEEX advisers and safety personnel—costs $40,000 for a single day. While The Association of Former Students helped support this year’s event, Disaster Day also relies on the fundraising success of student volunteers who seek out corporate and community sponsors. That responsibility naturally gets tougher as the event becomes more extensive—and expensive.

Gifts to the Texas A&M Foundation could alleviate this student fundraising burden, thereby allowing participants to spend more time on planning and implementation. A gift of $50,000 would support Disaster Day for one year. A gift of $1 million, however, would establish an endowment to fund all future Disaster Days.

Kaunas said that financial support could additionally help the event—already the largest of its kind in the nation—become even better by including students from other Texas A&M disciplines.

It could also boost HSC recruitment efforts. “We want Texas A&M to become known for this event, encouraging potential students to choose our institution in part because they’re interested in emergency response,” she said.

“As impressive and far-reaching as Disaster Day already is,” Kaunas added, “elevating it even further will really give us a name in disaster response and interprofessional education.”

To learn how you can support Disaster Day, contact Kirk Joseph '84 (below).