October 23, 2017

During Hurricane Harvey, UTHealth School of Nursing students conducted clinical rotations in Houston's disaster zone.

By Caroline Covington
Population Health Scholar
University of Texas System
Master's Student in Journalism
UT Austin Moody College of Communication


The first two days after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Allison Edwards drove her boat up and down her neighborhood streets rescuing people from flooded homes.

“I took a shower, went to bed, and got up and did it again the next day,” says Edwards, assistant professor of Nursing Systems at the UTHealth Houston School of Nursing.

As soon as the waters receded, she went to Lakewood Church’s shelter to offer her own nursing services to evacuees.

Then, like so many of the extraordinary Texans who were forced to deal with the crisis, Edwards did more.

School was about to begin, and School of Nursing students were dispersed across the Houston metropolitan area and beyond, many of them victims of the devastation wrought by the storm.

The first priority for Edwards and her colleagues was to account for all of the students, and make sure they were safe. Next, with the semester starting, the school needed a way to put the students to work. Nursing students need to accrue clinical hours to graduate, and with Houston Methodist, Ben Taub, and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center overwhelmed and unable to take on students for clinical rotation, everyone had to get creative.

“We gave them an opportunity to get clinical hours in a hands-on and unorthodox way,” notes Edwards, who serves on the Texas Board of Nursing.

The school arranged for students in their fourth, and final, semester to go to the George R. Brown Convention Center, where thousands of displaced and traumatized Houstonians were seeking refuge after escaping the rising floodwaters.

There, the students worked with the Federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team, the U.S. Public Health Service, and the American Red Cross to help with triage, in-patient medical care, patient assessment, and administering medication. They worked one of two, twelve-hour shifts, starting at 7 a.m.

The scene at the convention center was intense when the nursing team arrived, five days after the storm hit. Along with the evacuees, there were multiple federal and state agencies, national and local health organizations, and volunteers from throughout the region. As a learning experience, it was unlike almost anything the students would encounter under usual circumstances.

“It’s not your typical setting,” Edwards says. “In an evacuee situation, people are displaced, without medications and under a number of stressors and variables. They aren’t acting like themselves.”

The students had an opportunity to learn on their feet in a challenging environment, all with the support of attending faculty members. They rose to the occasion.

Across town, third-semester students helped to staff The Center, which is an almost seven-acre residential facility for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities that sits along the Buffalo Bayou. The Center was severely damaged by flooding. Six out of its seven buildings were uninhabitable, and the approximately 90 residents were crammed into one building, along with support staff.

According to Edwards, who coordinates the third-semester clinical program, those students had little to no clinical experience. They’re “wide-eyed and anxious," she says, but it didn’t show. Students, and Edwards herself, held a potluck on the first day of residency to try to bring some peace of mind to The Center’s residents, many of whom rely on routine and consistency — two things hard to come by in the aftermath of the storm.

“I made beef stroganoff and multiplied the recipe by three," Edwards says. “One student’s grandmother even made homemade chicken strips.”

One of The Center’s residents gave Edwards’s students a guided tour of the place, history lesson included. Despite being an unconventional first day back at school, the students also did “normal” nursing things like taking patients’ vital signs and feeding them. For the time being, though, Edwards has had to rethink how to schedule her students’ hours at The Center. The facility is far from being back to normal, so she’s trying to find a way to attend to clients’ needs while not adding to the stress of its cramped quarters.

Hurricane Harvey deeply affected not only clients and patients of UTHealth nursing students, but the students and faculty themselves. The nursing school is doing as much as it can to help students affected by the hurricane. Students were urged to talk to their advisers to seek accommodations if classes needed to be missed or dropped altogether. Edwards says faculty also tried to ease students into the semester, especially if they had been displaced or traumatized.

“If they weren’t uprooted, they know someone who was,” she says.