Do we need "disaster champions"?

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Today, some of my colleagues and I are bringing teams of physicians and nurses together from many of the surrounding community hospitals in our region, for the first installment in a year-long program designed to build confidence and competency for these hospitals in dealing with children in disasters.

Starting with the horrific events of the 9-11 terrorist attacks the nation has slowly come to the realization that we are not very good at predicting the needs of children in disasters.

This lack of expertise was demonstrated in response to the hurricanes Katrina and Rita. For many years, children were considered (AND NO, I AM NOT KIDDING) a "special population" similar to PETS, that needed a couple of additional sentences included in a manual.

During the Katrina disaster in the gulf coast, we realized we did not have any kind of system that allows us to systematically predict or respond to the needs of children during a disaster. We had no method of transporting the children out of hospitals that were devastated by the hurricane to other areas that could provide the intensive care they needed. There was no method to account for the whereabouts of the children who were successfully evacuated to medical facilities, even as their parents were sent by bus to the Houston Astrodome or elsewhere. Some families did not get reunited for months.

Slowly, pediatricians and others interested in this problem have come together to acknowledge that much is needed in the way of education, practical experience and logistics, to ensure that our children are taken care of as well as possible in case of a disaster--be it a natural disaster like a hurricane, crippling snowstorm or earthquake, a pandemic like H1N1 might have been, or a man-made disaster such as a bioterroism or nuclear attack.

We never want to think that such things can happen, but we need to be prepared in case they do.

So today we are bringing doctors and nurses together who have agreed to be their particular hospital's "pediatric disaster champions" so that they can start to learn what they need to know to handle whatever comes their way, especially if access to their local tertiary hospital is cut off. We will be giving them access to experts in pediatric medicine and surgery as well as pediatric nursing, and knowledge of what to do  and how to do it. We will provide simulation experiences in our high-fidelity center for experiencial learning, interactive sessions, opportunities to get hands-on exposure to real-life patients and go on critical care transports, etc. There will be readings and interactive web-based learning experiences in the months in between physical meetings here in Roanoke.

This has all been made possible through a grant from the Virginia ASPR program, that exists to help hospitals prepare for future disasters. We are greatful to the Commonwealth for providing these funds, and will keed the readership updated on how this evolves over the next 12 months.

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About Dr. Ackerman

Alice Ackerman, MD, MBA, FAAP, FCCM is the Chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Carilion Clinic and Professor and Founding Chair of Pediatrics at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Dr. Ackerman is recognized nationally as an expert in pediatric critical care.

She has been at Carilion Clinic since June of 2007. Her primary goals are to enhance the health care of children in the Roanoke Valley and Southwest Virginia, and is actively working to do this both as physician in chief of the children's hospital, as well as through involvement with many state-wide initiatives.

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