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Penny Kessler and a colleague

Penny Kessler, left, with Mayo colleague Jennifer Roslien in New Orleans.

Going home to help

P&A staff member joined medical relief team in Louisiana

By Lynn Burbank

December 13, 2005

Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, the call for medical personnel went out from the University of Minnesota's Medical Reserve Corps, originally developed in response to a federal request after the terrorist attacks in September 2001. At first, Penny Kessler, a teaching specialist and registered nurse in the School of Nursing, did not respond.

"I couldn't keep my eyes off the TV," she says.

Kessler grew up in Baton Rouge and attended Louisiana State University in New Orleans, right next to the Superdome. When the first call for help came, she didn't know whether her family and friends had been caught in the hurricane's path.

"It was my hometown--I was too close to the story to go," says Kessler. "I called and called, but couldn't get through."

After several days, Kessler heard that her family was safe. And when the second MRC call for help came October 3, she felt she'd had enough time to process it all in order to be effective as a nurse. Six days later, she was on the bus to southern Louisiana for two weeks as a medical volunteer.

On Pecan Island..."everything was destroyed, absolutely destroyed. We walked up to people working on their homes to give immunizations."

Kessler was part of an eight-week program coordinated through the American Refugee Committee that included personnel from the University's Medical Reserve Corps, Mayo Clinic, College of St. Catherine's, and Nechama, a Jewish disaster relief group. The coordinated response was called Operation Minnesota Lifeline, and the Louisiana state public health agency for Region Four asked for its help. The University's Medical Reserve Corps was developed in response to a federal request following the terrorist attacks in September 2001.

After 20 hours on a chartered bus, Kessler's group had breakfast and went to work. The 62 Lifeline volunteers divided into six teams of nurses and nurse practitioners, physicians, mental health professionals, and certified medical assistants. The main purpose of each team was to provide immunizations and other outpatient care. They also "triaged"--taking vital signs and patient histories and making referrals to physicians and nurse practitioners for chronic issues, such as diabetes and asthma.

"A lot of people were out of the grief and shock phase and were getting depressed about what they had lost," Kessler says. "Others were out of their medications and were experiencing physical and mental health problems. [Some] hadn't had medications for weeks." Some needed inpatient care, which the teams coordinated with local hospitals.

The National Guard patrolled the region to discourage looters. Team members wore scrubs, lab coats, and identifying badges and rode in marked vehicles to get through. They gave injections and care out of the back of the van. Kessler estimates that her team alone worked with more than two-thousand people in two weeks.

"One day, we gave 165 flu and pneumonia shots in two hours."

The first Minnesota Lifeline response group had worked with hurricane evacuees gathered in shelters. Kessler and her teammates went to hotels, trailer parks, churches, and camping areas to find people who, for one reason and another, were not seeking help from the public health units. They spent hours walking through neighborhoods, listening for voices, and then providing assistance. Pecan Island was unforgettable.

"Everything was destroyed, absolutely destroyed," she remembers. "We walked up to people working on their homes to give immunizations."

To accomplish this work, Minnesota Lifeline had set up an "unbelievably organized" strategic command center of medical and nursing directors and support volunteers, she says. Center staff worked all day, every day finding people who needed care, and sending volunteers. They figured out solutions for any type of problem the team had. It reminded Kessler of the movie Apollo 13.

Kessler credits the American Refugee Committee (ARC) with coordinating the tremendous support of Operation Minnesota Lifeline for victims of the hurricanes. The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army also were prominent in relief efforts. She saw them everywhere.

Back home for several weeks, she continues to reflect on what she saw. She is thankful she had the opportunity to help people in Louisiana.

"But," she adds, "they still need help. There is so much more to be done."

Kessler encourages everyone to continue contributing to organizations involved in hurricane relief efforts.

Lynn Burbank is a program director in Continuing Education at UMD and chair of the Council for Academic Professionals and Administrators (CAPA) Communication Committee.