Well, my chickadees, I have returned from my week of FEMA training badly sleep-deprived and a bit traumatized, with a new-found terror of biological warfare and a cholesterol level that I can only guess is now through the roof thanks to the accursed deliciousness of Southern cooking and a Southern refusal to allow you to experience even five seconds of mild hunger. That having been said, it was the one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I am blessed to have had it. I was in the Healthcare Leadership Program, which ran concurrently with the Emergency Response Team class. (Those were the folks who ran the decontamination tents, among other things.) I didn’t sign a non-disclosure agreement or anything, but it’s tactically understood that I shouldn’t go into a lot of specifics on a public site. So I will keep the details of the actual training exercises somewhat minimal, while still attempting to be scintillating.
I would like to preface this by saying that I am deeply grateful to the people in this country--the nurses, medics, firefighters, police, military personnel and others who are braver and stronger and smarter than I will ever be--who are working very hard behind the scenes every day to make sure that lives will be saved and suffering will be minimized in the event of a disaster. Over the last week, I have had the honor of being surrounded by some of the most remarkable people I have ever met. I saw people do extraordinary things and rise to the occasion in ways that they never believed they could. I saw first-hand the enormity of what can be accomplished when egos are in check and a group of people pull together to act as a team. I saw human angels in action. I have always had faith in this country, but I have returned with a renewed sense of optimism and a firm belief in our collective potential.
For context, the training started with a lot of lectures on the basics of the Emergency Incident Command System and the numerous involved agencies and their roles, then it progressed slowly into tabletop exercises followed by short, live scenarios during which we were observed on camera throughout and fed information through “controllers” who dictated fictional phone calls and acted as various characters in the scenarios. As the scenarios advanced in length and complexity, live actors were brought onto the scene, which made things even more interesting. It required a fair bit of suspension of disbelief, but I’ve never had a problem with that.
As someone who has always thought of myself as adverse to chaos, I discovered that I actually have a love for it. After a brief stint in the fictional Public Health office, I felt that I wasn’t seeing enough action, and I asked to be transferred to the fictional Emergency Department. Public Health was an interesting assignment in some ways, but we were isolated from the hospital in a windowless office, and much of the work involved trying to track down the origin of various terrible disease outbreaks. I got bored doing nothing but making phone calls, then two nine-year-old twins “died” of Anthrax exposure, and it hurt me in the feels pretty bad. I fully realized that the ED would be a hundred times worse in terms of human carnage, and I was right, but I felt a deep need to be smack in the middle of it, to experience the worst things possible, perhaps in a misguided bid to gain some sense of mastery over my fear. So, midway through the training, the instructor brought me to the ED as an “extra hand.” The ED team had already coalesced at that point and they would have been well within their rights to take umbrage at having a non-nurse interloper dropped into their midst, but they handled it like pros with the can-do declaration, “No problem! We’ll put you to work.”
And put me to work they did. In the final capstone event on Friday, in which every natural and man-made disaster known to man hit seemingly within fifteen minutes of each other, I was on my feet and running non-stop for the entire four hours, and getting a crash course in triage at the same time. And I loved it. I felt alive and energized and full of adrenaline and ready for anything. And anything came, including a woman who I had to wheel up to the second floor as her baby was “crowning” and her husband was yelling at me, a fight in the waiting room between a mother and daughter, a rogue reporter who tried to pry information out of me, (I am proud to say I didn’t crack), and the consummate trauma patient, a man who had very realistically, graphically amputated legs from a combine accident. I will never forget his screams. But more than that, I will never forget interacting with his devastated brother, who collapsed in sobs and told me that his brother was all he had in this world. That was the one that finally got me, folks. I took care of him as well as I could, but that did me in. No one saw me, but I had to go into the bathroom and cry after that. Damn FEMA actors. They were absolute masters at knowing how to stress us out and get under our skin.
The other slightly less bad moment was when I got mildly dressed down by a very formidable Eastern European doctor-in-real-life for not knowing how to properly do a verbal report. I consider it a victory that later in the day I was able to get her to crack a slight smile by telling her I passed my nursing exam in the hour since I had last seen her.
Overall, I feel that my confidence around being an asset in a mass casualty event has gone from almost zero to about 90%. I’m just a very ordinary citizen with a non-clinical job. I’m not particularly strong physically and I certainly wouldn’t call myself courageous, but I know that I can be of help now, and that was my sole goal going into this. I can’t do the work of an emergency room nurse or a firefighter or a hazmat specialist, but I can do something. I can contribute and be of assistance to my community, and for that I am glad in the heart.
I will wrap up with a pitch for the FEMA training: You don’t have to be anyone special to go, and FEMA pays for all of your food, lodging, and airfare. If you can get your employer to approve you to attend and you can pass a background check, you’re in. The instructors are highly experienced, consummate professionals, and the operation is run with military-like structure and efficiency. Alabama is a beautiful state, and the training center is on lush, tree-lined, well-kept grounds. They offer a lot of different classes, and they are all excellent. If you’re curious and want to look into it, you can check out the offerings at this link.
They also have an abundance of free online classes, so check those out, too.
I loved every second of my time at FEMA, even the parts that I hated, but it’s good to be home. I missed Mr. Typist almost as much as I missed having a dimmer switch in the bathroom. I had a shared bathroom suite, and every time I opened the door to pee in the middle of the night, an automatic light switched on that had the glare and intensity of stadium floodlights. It was very stressful and not conducive to getting back to sleep easily, as my retinas burned for minutes afterward. Home is good. Our class video should be coming out soon, but in the meantime, here is a video on the joys of home: