Masters of Disaster: Armstrong Health Students Get Hazard Training

Armstrong prepares students for any situation they may face out in the real world, including how to handle a catastrophe concerning hazardous chemicals. On July 9, students from the Armstrong chapter of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) got down and dirty for a decontamination exercise at Memorial Health University Medical Center.

“Students played the victims of a contamination spill and were covered in fake chemicals that we made with mustard and shaving cream,” explains IHI president Natalie Edgeworth. “My role was to organize the exercise and direct students during the drill.”

Natalie is a student in the Master of Health Service Administration program at Armstrong and leads the Armstrong chapter of the IHI, a nonprofit organization that promotes process and quality improvements in healthcare facilities. She worked with Memorial to organize and orchestrate a drill that served as hands-on practice for the hospital’s decontamination team in the event of a mass contamination event.

“All hospitals have a decontamination team to respond to the victims from incidents such as a chemical spill at a plant,” explains Natalie. “Victims of those incidents may come to the hospital with hazardous materials all over their body, and the decontamination team is responsible for intercepting them so that they do not spread hazardous chemicals to patients and staff inside the hospital.”

Once the drill started, it became more of a game for students participating in the drill. According to Natalie, the protocol of the hospital is that if they see someone contaminated with hazardous chemicals, they must prevent them from entering into any of the hospital’s entrances.

“The students job was to cover themselves in fake chemicals, and attempt to get into various hospital entrances in waves of 15 minute intervals,” says Natalie. “They would do everything we could to get into the doors, and the staff had to do everything they could to keep us out and alert the decontamination team to intercept us.”

Even on drill day, the decontamination team was dressed as if an emergency actually occurred. Covered from head to toe in decontamination suits, the team intercepted the students and placed them in the back of trucks to be transported to established decontamination areas.

“The decontamination areas have showers that look like moon bounces,” explains Natalie. “They sprayed them off with hoses, stuck them in the showers, and then placed a green poncho over them that signaled we had been decontaminated.”

Natalie and her team of students got creative when they began to construct themselves as chemically contaminated victims. Some had dummies that acted as fake children, some pretended to stumble and fall with fake injuries, and one girl even spoke Spanish and acted as if she did not understand English. The students worked diligently to throw every curve ball they could think of at Memorial’s decontamination team.

According to Dr. Janet Buelow, professor of health services administration in the College of Health Professions and the IHI’s faculty advisor, events such as this not only play a pivotal role in helping students gain knowledge and insight into all the various events that are necessary to keep healthcare facilities running safely, but it is also important that students give back to the professionals who give their time to them while they are in clinicals.

“For this exercise, our students provided some necessary services to help hospital staff practice their skills and teamwork, and students got to witness behind the scenes planning, action and evaluation,” says Dr. Buelow. “It was really a win-win situation.”