Alumna Answers the Call. Heads to Puerto Rico Following Hurricanes.

A ripped Puerto Rican hangs over a building, torn by the hurricane
Janine Smalley, MSN, RN-BC, a nurse at the Veterans Affairs Wade Park Hospital in Cleveland, OH, was among those placed on medical disaster relief standby when Hurricane Irma crashed into Puerto Rico. “Report to the airport at 6 a.m. tomorrow for departure to Puerto Rico.” The phone call came in the middle of dinner. Anticipating deployment, the call was no surprise. “The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) told me I could ship out at any time. I had my bag packed with enough scrubs and supplies for two weeks. Then I waited for Hurricane Maria to strike.”

This was Smalley’s first deployment. She was nervous following the call, but she was anxious to help those in need. “I had no idea what to expect or what I would be asked to do. I did not know the conditions I was walking into.” A volunteer with FEMA Cleveland Clinic since 2008, she also volunteers with the Lake County Medical Reserve Core and could deploy to any local or federal disaster. “Volunteering has opened new opportunities for me. I was able to join the disaster team at the VA once they learned I did disaster relief at Cleveland Clinic.”

Smalley was encouraged to enroll in nursing school after caring for her ill father-in-law, and she identified Kent State University College of Nursing as her first choice school because of its reputation. A three-time nursing alumna, she credits her time at Kent for sparking her interest in volunteer work. “My clinical experiences, along with some of my instructors, encouraged me to volunteer. Being a nurse means your possibilities are endless. No matter what you want to do, find a way to do it. Kent State taught me that through its fantastic programs.”

A home destroyed by the storms, with debris scattered around it. It has no roof or walls, just the platform where the foundation stood. All that is left standing is a refrigerator and cabinet. Street light poles are on the ground and on the platform.
Having lost everything to a house fire in 1994, Smalley knew she would be able to empathize with her patients. Their high spirits and selflessness, however, surprised her. “These people who had absolutely nothing were so grateful. When we would offer food and supplies, many would tell us ‘No, I’m safe, I’m here. Give it to someone who needs it more than me.’” Recalling one woman in particular who was very sick, Smalley explained that the woman wanted to give her something as a thank you and asked if Smalley would accept a piece of her garden. “I do not have a green thumb, but somehow I kept that plant alive in a coffee cup in the hotel room. I brought it back to Cleveland and it is thriving.”

Smalley, a psychiatric mental health nurse, worked with a team of social workers to treat nearly 5,000 veterans at 80 shelters, many without water and electricity. For fourteen straight days, her team worked long 12-hour shifts, surviving on rice, beans, and protein bars. Over the course of her two weeks in Puerto Rico, Smalley discovered her open mind and compassion to be the most important assistance she could offer her patients. “You can bring every nursing tool you have, but most of the time you do not need them, the people just want to talk about what happened.” 

Puerto Rican citizens gather at a fuel station following the storms.
As a volunteer with FEMA, Smalley will only deploy to the United States and its territories. However, she is also open to learning more about international volunteer opportunities. “That was actually something that was available to me as a Kent nursing student, unfortunately, the timeframe didn’t work for me and I wasn’t able to go. But I would like to!”   

Smalley strongly encourages other nurses to answer the call to volunteer as she does. “Contact your hospital and get on their Emergency Response Team. Contact the Red Cross or your county Medical Reserve Core. These organizations are hidden gems. Most people aren’t aware they exist until an emergency happens and their services are needed.”

POSTED: Tuesday, February 6, 2018 - 5:42pm
UPDATED: Thursday, March 26, 2020 - 11:51am
Mariah Gibbons