Planning Disaster Day gives students a chance to learn valuable leadership skills

January 16, 2015
Disaster Day prepares students for a challenge they may encounter during their health careers, teaching them how to handle a high volume of patients and communicate effectively in a high-stakes environment

Disaster Day prepares students for a challenge they may encounter during their health careers, teaching them how to handle a high volume of patients and communicate effectively in a high-stakes environment.

Organizing an event with 800 participants is a monumental fete. But it’s even more of a fete for seniors in the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing who are balancing lectures, exams and clinical hours, all while planning Disaster Day, one of the largest disaster simulations in the country.

Now in its eighth year, Disaster Day is a completely student-run and organized event. The College of Nursing created the event to help students gain hands-on experience responding to a mass casualty disaster. Each year, a new scenario is chosen to enable students to test their emergency response skills outside the classroom. The scenario is kept secret until the day of the event in order to provide a more realistic simulation. The 2015 Disaster Day has been set for March 26.

With 300 students from across the Texas A&M Health Science Center and Blinn College, and more than 500 patient volunteers, Disaster Day is an enormous undertaking from start to finish and an invaluable learning experience for the future health care providers of Texas. The interdisciplinary nature of the event provides TAMHSC and Blinn students the opportunity to practice working together across medical specialties to develop appropriate role expectations, respect and teamwork.

“In a leadership role, you can’t be nervous about giving out ideas or delegating roles to others, which is something that you need to be able to do to be an effective nurse on the floor,” said Elizabeth Kniffin, co-chair of the Disaster Day Volunteer Committee. “It is also great for teaching time management, since we are leading and organizing Disaster Day on top of our studies and our clinical schedules.” Kniffin is a traditional Bachelor of Science senior and will graduate in May.

Students at the Texas A&M College of Nursing work together every year with students from the Texas A&M colleges of medicine, veterinary medicine and pharmacy, as well as Blinn College’s nursing, radiology and EMS students, to create and manage this enormous event. Five committees do the bulk of the organizing and preparation: Fundraising, Supplies, Case Studies, Volunteer, and Moulage, which is the art of applying mock injuries for training purposes. Each committee is led by a student chair or two co-chairs who each apply for the leadership positions. Incident commanders, appointed by College of Nursing faculty, help run the actual simulation.

Disaster Day is in late March of every year, but planning begins in the fall semester. Now in January, with less than three months until the big day, there is still a great deal of work left to be done.

“I have learned that there is a lot more that goes into the planning of Disaster Day than I ever imagined,” Kniffin said. “The success of Disaster Day is not based on just a few people, but many different disciplines, faculty members and students. Even though it is student run, we could not even think about having a functional Disaster Day without the support we get from our faculty and all the other disciplines.”

The hands-on approach of Disaster Day offers students of all medical disciplines the ultimate in simulation experiences as a means of honing their emergency management, clinical and interpersonal skills.

“I wholeheartedly believe that everyone who attends Disaster Day leaves a better person and a better professional,” said Halye Vessell, a senior Bachelor of Science major who is co-chair for the Volunteer Committee. “It enhances nurses in a way that makes them more confident in their skills and teaches them the value of working on a team. Additionally, they finally get to see everything we have learned in action! It is an unbeatable feeling.”

The entire Disaster Day runs on donations from the community and event collaborators, and as the event increases in size and scope, the fundraising efforts for Disaster Day must also increase.

“We are working very hard to get money for this event,” said Gayle Kuizon, a senior who is co-chair of the Fundraising Committee. “It means the world to us for people to give us support – whether that’s one cent or a hundred dollars, we appreciate everything. It gives our committee an additional set of professional skills to collaborate with community members and businesses to make both Disaster Day and our futures successful.”

Senior Alexis Cooper is one of five incident commanders who oversee the planning and production of Disaster Day. For her, it’s all about time management.

“I’ve learned a lot about management of time, people and organizations,” Cooper said. “It is actually very hard when you have multiple people working on multiple projects, along with managing your own classes, studies and clinicals. There is a lot of decision making, communication and record keeping that we must manage. I don’t think we would get this experience any other way.”

Disaster Day is a crucial learning experience for all its participants, but perhaps its student leaders get the most education. All the incident commanders and committee chairs emphasize a very serious, common thread to Disaster Day: teamwork.

“I’ve never been part of a team this size for such a monumental event, but we really are one big team,” Cooper said. “And what makes this team so special is that we come together to help each other out in the midst of completing our own tasks. With my fellow students and our faculty leaders I know that we will plan this Disaster Day successfully, together.”

Kuizon said Disaster Day pushed her to work with many different people to achieve one goal. “If you think about it, it’s what nurses do every day,” she said. “Their goal is to get their patients to their best level of health and to do that you work with physicians, technicians, physical therapists, speech therapists, etc. in order to attain that goal.”

Story written by Katie Hancock

— Sloane Williams

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