Volunteering for Hurricane Harvey disaster relief

Valerie Spear


Our Guest post today is from Valerie Spear, PMHNP-BC and DNP Class of 2018. Valerie recently graduated from the Psych Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) program at OHSU and is currently in her last year of the Doctor of Nursing Practice program.


I had the great and challenging opportunity to volunteer for the Red Cross in September in response to Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas this summer. It was my first involvement with the Red Cross and I was specifically responding as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner to fill the need for disaster mental health (DMH) workers. This process enabled me to see how health disparities effect people in disaster scenarios and I’m grateful for the experience.

The demand for volunteers and specifically mental health volunteers allowed me to deploy directly without first getting involved with the local chapter. This only occurs in times of great need.

The role of a disaster mental health (DMH) worker can be filled by any master’s or above prepared mental health worker (e.g. licensed social worker, psychiatrist, psychiatric nurse practitioners, psychologist, and RNs/BSN who have worked in psychiatry for at least two years). The position is varied and requires flexibility to the need, community, and disaster. With hurricane Harvey, DMH workers went out in the field, going to areas affected by the disaster and assessing for need while handing out food. They were also in shelters where people who lost their homes were waiting for assistance in getting housing. DMH workers have to be ready to respond to immediate emotional distress and lessen long-term consequences, assume that many people are resilient, augment the community’s mental health resources, rather than replace them, and serve the community in preparedness activities and recovery programs.

My experience volunteering with the Red Cross after Hurricane Harvey can easily be summed up into two words: overwhelming and rewarding. I felt that my nursing education provided a strong foundation in being flexible and building relationships with the people impacted and in need of mental health support.

Here is an excerpt from my journal during my stay:

I get up early and go to the Red Cross headquarters. It’s a bustling joint with everyone in Red Cross vests walking around with a mission. The tension in the air is notable and most people you speak with are stressed or disgruntled with one thing or another. It has been four weeks since the hurricane and still they’re finding new heavily impacted neighborhoods that haven’t yet been reached by either Red Cross or FEMA.

I arrive at the shelter on my second day. It is a huge warehouse with hundreds of cots squeezed in together in order to fit all of the residents. There are tables everywhere with case workers from FEMA, Red Cross, and a local housing organization. Many residents have found housing or have gone to stay with family members. Those who remain have been staying in shelters for nearly a month. The desperation is noticeable in everyone’s eyes—volunteers and residents alike. I round the shelter every 20 minutes to keep tabs on people, create relationships, provide emotional support, and assess for any concerning signs of depression or suicidal thoughts.

Many of the residents who are still in the shelter are those with severe and persistent mental illness (SPMI) and were homeless prior to the hurricane; the shelter is a place where they can be fed and clothed for a few weeks. Once those people that had housing prior to Harvey return to housing, the shelter will close and those that were homeless will most likely go back to being homeless.

In essence, the shelter is a representation of our broken system–a system that the Red Cross will not fix alone in a disaster response. People who are impoverished, people of color, people who are differently abled, and the mentally ill are yet again those that are least supported in our healthcare and support systems and thus most impacted by a disaster. Only by recognizing and addressing these disparities can we begin to create a system that is equitable.

Since volunteering with the Red Cross, it is evident to me that disasters only magnify the broken system that we are currently living and working in. I will not say Red Cross is perfect, it is confusing and sometimes hard to work within. But the truth is, without the Red Cross there is essentially no one else who is able to respond with the numbers and equipment that they do. Nursing leaders and nurse practitioners are well suited to not only respond to disasters but also to improve the system to prepare our patients and ourselves when disasters occur. Nurse leaders can play an integral role to help the Red Cross continue to design systems and models that are adequate and efficient in responding to disasters. I highly encourage getting involved with your local Red Cross chapter to help those near and far when in need.

Imposters, white coats and Dorothy & Toto

I know this title sounds crazy, but stay with me guys, I promise this all makes sense:) Hello everyone! My name is Kelly, I am a sophomore Bachelor’s with a major in nursing student at OHSU’s Monmouth campus and this is my first blog post.

When I was in my pre-req years, I, (like many others), was very dedicated to my studies. It meant long hours of reading and memorizing, endless study nights, and a huge blow to any sort of social life. It was all with the end goal of reaching my dream of getting into OHSU to start my nursing career. However, when the admission email and letter finally came, it was all too surreal. I was beyond excited, but it felt way too good to be true. Even throughout that summer as I completed my compilo training and immunizations, it felt as if I was in a daze, just going through the motions in a dream.

When day one of orientation came around, I had a bad case of what my professors called, “the imposter syndrome”, you know, that unshakable and frightening feeling of, “Did I really just get accepted? Am I really here?”  As I looked around the room at my classmates and professors, I felt like I was in a whole other world that couldn’t possibly be true. I kind of felt something like this. . .


It all seemed so strange how I got there in the first place, but don’t get me wrong, I definitely put in the work. I still have a caffeine-addiction, and an engraved OCD-like study routine to prove what pre-reqs have put me through! However, it was that weird side-effect of working so long and so hard for something that when it finally comes, it just doesn’t seem real, that is, until the day of our white coat ceremony. No longer just for med students, this initiation ceremony was recently implemented by OHSU for their nursing students as well. I’m very grateful that we had this ceremony, because I know it was a turning point for me as well as many of my classmates.


As we were being clothed with that white lab coat and recited our oath together, it all came crashing down on me. It was very real and very humbling at the same time. I was amazingly overwhelmed by the beauty of the responsibility that our profession carries and of the difference that we can make in the lives of our patients. Compassion, integrity, and top quality clinical practice all embody what a nurse is and does in every true sense of those words. To be in any medical profession does indeed take a lot of work. Sacrifice and dedication are some of the most important non-negotiables that are needed to make it happen, but the rewards and joy that come with it are more than worth it all. To wear these hunter green scrubs is a privilege, to wear this OHSU patch is our badge of honor, and to know that we can work with and help heal the sick and suffering is what drives us forward every single day of our lives.

No toto, we are definitely not in Kansas anymore, and you know what? It feels pretty amazing.


Find the Time and Integrate

How do I have time for this? I asked myself when I signed up to be a Student Blogger. I don’t know what provoked the moment of inspiration where I thought, “Well that could be fun!” At times, I don’t even know how I function. I’m a mom of three small kids (ages 7, 5, 2), work full time as a nurse and Staff Educator, and now in full time post-grad school obtaining my DNP. At times, I feel like I’m going insane! Taking time for self-reflection, well, really isn’t a priority. Even self-care seems to be in the drain these days! But, I read something today in my “required readings” that stated, “Self-reflection leads to discovery (Crowell, 2016).” Well if that’s true, maybe I innately signed up for this to balance my left and right brain. Utilizing blogging as a means for self-reflection, but also insight for those thinking about or in the DNP program with me! This may be my creative outlet.

My words of wisdom are to find the time for yourself, do the little things, and find a way to stimulate your right brain! I love being creative, and sometimes the paper writing, forums, and quizzes just get me down. If you have a voice over presentation (VOP) then utilize this as a way to stimulate your creative side! Become a blogger (or journal) so you can self reflect and like Crowell said, lead to discovery! We are most effective as humans when our mind is integrated. The perfect balance between the logical left and the colorful emotional right.

Ijackien my picture you will see a mom intently listening to a lecture, taking notes, drinking my coffee, laughing with my kids, and cozied up in my favorite chair and blanket! My last words of wisdom are to make your studying place “comfortable.” It will make it a whole lot easier. Integration is key!

The trust fall

Trust the System. That’s what they told us on the first day of orientation. For 42 predominately type A personalities trust is something that is not easily dispensed; it is something that is earned. But there I was, standing at the edge of the table, arms crossed across my chest, about to make the biggest trust fall of my life into the arms of 41 strangers.

Since that day, I have come to understand what they meant by “trust the system” and I have become more comfortable letting go and doing just that. When I didn’t understand how to navigate the online learning system, there were numerous classmates that could see me struggling and jumped in to help. Aid came so quickly that I hardly had the chance to get frustrated. When I got my first non-passing grade on a test and was feeling down about it, my classmates could tell something was wrong and, again, jumped in to pick me up. At the same time, almost intuitively, we had several class sessions on developing effective study habits; as if I wasn’t the first person in the history of P.A. school to struggle. As if years of P.A. students before me had met the same challenges and the program and faculty saw this and developed curriculum to help us through this transitionary period.

There were times that I wondered how on earth I would ever learn all the material. I was sure that this was going to be THE week – the week that I kissed my P.A. career goodbye. But that’s not what happened. What happened was hours of study sessions with my classmates, lots of creative white-board drawings, laughing until I cried, Thursday night pizza parties in the library, and a passing grade and countless memories at the end to show for it all.

Trust the System. I hear this statement on a weekly basis. I say it to myself every day. It’s become my motto, my reminder that everything is going to be OK. It takes a weight off my shoulders and eases my feelings of uncertainty. I gladly close my eyes and fall back, knowing that I will be caught and I instinctively hold out my arms to catch my other classmates who are falling.

Thanks for the memories

Six years. 72 months. 2,190 days. 52,560 hours. 3,153,600 minutes. I began graduate school as an early 20-something in September 2011. I wanted to be a scientist, I wanted a Ph.D. I knew it would not be easy; I could not fully understand what the experience would truly mean.

There are many types of students at OHSU: Medical students, dental students, nursing students, master’s students, certificate students, and then there are the Ph.D. students. We were the kids in elementary school out playing in the dirt looking for bugs, getting lost in the natural history museums and begging to stay overnight in museums of science and industry. In college, we were the kids who volunteered in labs, who took pride in running experiments at all hours of the night, who dreamed of having our own labs, and we needed a Ph.D. – the ticket to our intellectual freedom.

First year, you are taking care of classes and finding a lab. You trust that faculty know what they are doing, and quickly learn they are human, too. Your cohort forms study groups and you bond over exams and insecurities. Second year, you are in the lab, preparing for your qualifying exam (not the most pleasant of experiences). It’s fun – you are in lab, you are doing things that will tangibly lead to your graduation. Third year you are a candidate, and you should be working on your project. If you work on cancer, you will get a fellowship. If you work on an incurable disease using an invertebrate system, you will not get a fellowship. If you get lucky in third year, you will graduate in fourth or fifth year with a couple of papers, maybe one really top-tier paper. If you do not get lucky, the years blend and before you know it, you are in sixth year, trying to convince your committee to let you defend, be done, and get on with your career.

If graduate school had a soundtrack, it would be the soundtrack from Inception– Hans Zimmer’s thundering, pummeling BWANG, BWANG, BWANG.  If it was a movie title, it would be The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. If it was a piece of art, I would say Picasso could probably capture it. Or Rothko.

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Finding support


Atkins Headshot 2017Our guest post today is from Sarah, a graduate of the OHSU School of Nursing’s Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Master’s program this past June. She is currently finishing her Doctor of Nursing Practice degree at OHSU and working at a pediatric primary care clinic in the Portland Metro area. She is thrilled to be partnering with Northwest Kidney Kids for her DNP project!

A map dot was where my directions took me on a hot and hazy August afternoon. Knowing only a handful of people beforehand, I was slightly nervous but overall excited for the weekend ahead. When I pulled into the parking lot and entered the main building, I could feel my worries evaporating from my body. The hallway was filled laughter, smiles, and hugs. This weekend was Northwest Kidney Kid’s Family Camp, the annual opportunity to meet and connect with families who have a child with kidney disease. NW Kidney Kids is an organization dedicated to supporting and educating children with chronic kidney disease and their families, and it is the only organization with a focus on serving youth with chronic kidney disease and their families in the Northwest. As a pediatric nurse practitioner and DNP student, I am so excited to be partnering with NW Kidney Kids for my DNP project and working to further support their mission. Attending Family Camp was a unique opportunity to learn more about the organization and the population they serve and to gather information to inform the direction of my DNP project.

As the weekend unfolded, I learned how the children with kidney disease were diagnosed at all ages. Some were diagnosed as toddlers, others as high-schoolers, and some were found to have kidney problems on their prenatal ultrasounds. I learned how these families have navigated the complex medical system and continue to rally through hospitalizations, appointments, blood draws, medications, new diagnoses, dialysis, and transplant. Families who have been attending camp for over a decade spoke passionately about how camp made them feel less alone and how they eagerly want to meet families with a child newly diagnosed with kidney disease to walk beside them on their journey. Other families said the beauty of Family Camp is “not having to explain” because their fellow NW Kidney Kids families have experienced so much of the same ups and downs as well.

What struck me was observing how kidney disease affects all walks of life – babies, toddlers, teens, traditional families, blended families, varying ethnicities, languages, socioeconomic statuses. The beauty of NW Kidney Kids is that regardless of your attributes, you were welcomed with open arms. Their message of “we want you here” shown like bursting fireworks lighting an otherwise dark night sky. It did not matter if you had a G-tube, wheelchair, timed medications, or a torso-length scar. You were welcome. You were important. You were loved.

During the 3 days of Family Camp, NW Kidney Kids scattered 600 Love Rocks on the retreat property. Love Rocks are small rocks with brightly colored, patterned fabric hearts and created by another wonderful organization. These Love Rocks dispersed on the retreat property by NW Kidney Kids were symbols of strength, love, joy, hope, success. You could either keep the rock you found for personal inspiration or take it home with the intention of giving it to someone else and uplifting them. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all be Love Rocks for one another?

After reflecting on my time at Family Camp, I am going to focus on the role of siblings of children with chronic health needs and how to support these siblings for my DNP project. I intend to start a pilot program Sibshop for siblings of children with chronic kidney disease in the Portland Metro area.

Resources and Event

If you are interested in supporting Northwest Kidney Kids, please consider registering for Strut Your Kidney, the first annual NW Kidney Kids’ 10k, 5k, or 1k fun run/walk. On Sunday, September 24, we have the opportunity to celebrate, honor, and raise awareness for children with chronic kidney disease, and all proceeds raised go to Northwest Kidney Kids. For more information, go to https://www.crowdrise.com/StrutYourKidney.

It is possible to make SAD not even seasonal!!!

I am writing my first blog post based on my experiences in Portland and my struggle with depression soon after I landed here. I am not writing this to bring about sympathy or pity but just to boldly put it out there and encourage all of us to break our inhibitions and talk to the helpful community in our vicinity.

I still remember the excitement in me when I came for the interview at OHSU in Feb 2015. It was a rainy, windy and gloomy day. Little did I know that it was a nearly perfect image of Portland in February.

The excited me saw everything as a lovely experience. After the interviews, while I had a good impression about the university itself, I really didn’t want to live in Portland. One of the main reasons being its weather. Fast forward to that moment in March of 2015 when I was biking to my lab in the warm California sunshine and I received an email that I have been accepted into the PMCB program.

My heart jumped with joy. I accepted the admission offer and started working towards wrapping up my work at Stanford. I figured that I would cope to the weather of Portland. Who knew it would take me a year to cope with it?

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Twenty-six months in the making?

For every day that I have spent introducing myself to patients as Lauren Liebling, “a physician assistant student working with Dr. So-and-so” I have been met with at least one “Oh that’s wonderful! How far along in your training are you? How long is your schooling?”  It has become a bit routine by now- I smile, reply that I am on my Nth rotation, and that school is 26 months long. Then…. Pause.

Twenty-six months. What can anyone possibly learn in the span of 26 months?  How can a person transform from student to provider in such a short length of time? To understand these questions you truly have to go back to the beginning, well before matriculation day on June 29, 2015.

For me it was January of 2011. I was in a small ski town in eastern California living my dream as a professional ski patroler. I was a newly certified EMT and the ski resort provided me ample exposure to complex traumas. I loved my job and began to dream of a career in health care…someday.  But then the faucet turned off and the snow stopped falling. Ski resorts don’t do much business during drought and I was laid off. Frustrated and financially stressed I did what any rational adult would do – I packed my car and drove to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I needed a plan for how to move forward, and it was right then and there that I enrolled in community college to take prerequisite coursework for PA school.

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Reflections after analyzing data from a failed experiment

The feeling is sickening. Your stomach sinks immediately, plunging thickly into darkness. Then, a sense of vertigo, a chilling Hitchcockian background-moving-but-character-standing-still effect where your eyes are forced to continually adjust to your computer screen.

You’re looking at nothing. Well, not nothing, exactly. Just not what you expect, which feels like nothing. Feels worse than nothing, because this so-called “something”, this shadow-something, is a hollow, almost mocking facsimile of a something.

You think: What went wrong? You think: Did I make some catastrophic mistake? You think: You shouldn’t have allowed yourself to hope.

In science, hope is a dangerous thing. Hope is not objective. Hope is not convinced by negative data or swayed by repeated failure. Hope endures; it perseveres. “Hope is a thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “that…sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.” Well, sorry, Emily, but in graduate school, your feathered hope is an endangered species, and science is slowly encroaching, licking its lips.

You’ll try again, of course. Repeat the experiment, perhaps. Or try something different. It doesn’t matter. You’ll move on. The only way to succeed is to maintain forward momentum.

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I went to OHSU Research Week and all I got was a lot of valuable advice and experience

RW web 1OHSU StudentSpeak is pleased to present this guest post by Rebecca Hood, a fourth-year graduate student in the Behavioral Neuroscience Graduate Program, OHSU School of Medicine.

I’ll confess: OHSU Research Week, to me, used to connote a free shirt, time to socialize with friends I don’t often see and lots of opportunities for free food. Throughout my attendance at Research Week events over the years, and as I’ve gotten more involved, however, I’ve come to realize how rewarding the event is (beyond the freebies) and how hard everyone involved works to make Research Week helpful and worthwhile.

Amy Williams, a fourth-year graduate student in the Behavioral Neuroscience Graduate Program, served as the Graduate Student Organization liaison on the Research Week Steering Committee. While her role as liaison required her to plan and organize all Research Week events, Amy was most heavily involved in the conception and overseeing of all of the Student Day events and selecting the student’s choice keynote lecturer, Nicholas Strausfeld, Ph.D. When asked why she chose to take on all of these responsibilities in addition to the normal workload of a Ph.D. student, Amy said, “I wanted to be involved in Research Week because I think it is a wonderful tradition of celebrating all research occurring at OHSU, and I wanted to be a part of that tradition.” She added, “Research Week is a truly unique opportunity at OHSU to discover research that is entirely outside of your area of expertise but occurring at your same institution.  There are also great Student Day events meant to help students with research, communication, mentorship, career development, writing and even research promotion in the modern world.”

To balance out how much I’ve taken advantage of Research Week events to provide me with free meals, I volunteered as part of the Student Day subcommittee this year.  I was struck by how many people worked exhaustively behind the scenes to make Research Week happen. Members of the planning committee included faculty, administrators and students from various offices and schools around campus. Additional volunteers worked in the weeks beforehand to get everything ready for Research Week participants (I will never take conference nametags for granted again), while still more volunteers helped to check in presenters, moderate sessions and judge presentations.

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Ever wondered what life is like as a student at OHSU? What does it take to become a researcher? Just how gross is gross anatomy? Welcome to the blog that answers these – and many other – questions. It’s students writing first-hand about their commitment to careers in science and health care. It’s honest about the challenges as well as the joys. It’s not always pretty. But it is our story. Thank you for sharing it with us. And please, let us know what you think.

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