Medical school seniors get a glimpse of mass-casualty preparedness

Chicago-area medical students dive into an intensive introduction to dealing with disasters.

By Myrle Croasdale — Posted Aug. 1, 2005

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During her first day of a three-day course on bioterrorism and disaster preparedness, fourth-year medical student Dawn Long was surprised at how much planning goes into preparing for incidents that may trigger mass casualties.

"I thought maybe they were overprepared," Long said.

That was Wednesday, July 6. The next day four bombs ripped through London's transportation system, killing more than 52 people and injuring scores of others.

"What happened in London ... made it so real," Long said on the last day of training, and the extensive plans make more sense.

Long, who is interested in family medicine and will serve in the Navy after graduation, said the lectures and in particular the live industrial accident drill with a decontamination tent helped bring the message home.

"I feel this could apply to me a little more," she said, especially if she ends up in Iraq.

Long was one of 140 or so medical school seniors at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine in Maywood, Ill., who took the first-time offered course in bioterrorism and disaster preparedness.

According to the Assn. of American Medical Colleges, some 38 schools require students to get disaster management training, while 89 schools mandate instruction in biological and chemical terrorism. In 2000-01, 27 schools required instruction in biological and chemical terrorism. The AAMC did not track disaster preparedness teaching at that time.

Loyola's program included speakers from the Illinois Poison Centers, Chicago Fire Dept. and the FBI.

Topics ranged from the ethics of treating enemy wounded to mundane but important issues such as managing child care for hospital staff during a crisis.

A live decontamination drill allowed the students to see for themselves what a mass-casualty situation might be like. Several students donned gray protective suits with hoods and respirators, taking on the roles of physicians and nurses, while others acted as workers from a plastic mold facility accidentally exposed to anhydrous ammonia.

Kevin Carney was one of the "victims" to go through the decontamination tent, with its row of shower stalls and a conveyor for hosing down those unable to stand. He noted how confusing such a situation could become.

"I easily could have gotten lost if my eyes had really been burning," Carney said.

Those in protective suits discovered how hard it was to see and hear and how the heat made dehydration a concern.

If a disaster does strike the Chicago area, Mark Cichon, DO, director of Loyola's emergency medical services, said all 400 of the school's students would be part of the response team. While the students wouldn't be the ones to man decontamination tents, as they did for the drill, they could be asked to answer phones or transport patients.

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