Bringing help and hope: Volunteer nurses find sharing their skills rewarding

Honoring professional healthcare volunteers during National Nurses Week

By: Kelly C. McClure, MLS, BSN, RN, American Red Cross volunteer

What does a disaster look like? There’s no rough blueprint or an all-encompassing definition for the word, but for those who have lost everything in a fire, flood, earthquake, or hurricane, it can look like complete despair. In the United States alone, a disaster occurs approximately every eight minutes. Stretched out, that’s more than 60,000 disasters each year that the American Red Cross will deploy volunteers to help victims by supplying clean water, food and shelter. But what happens when there are physical injuries, wounds or medical conditions that need immediate attention? The Red Cross’ team of volunteer nurses are there to help.

Beth Kartman-Orgel, RN, Red Cross volunteer

The volunteer nurse corps for the Red Cross include an amazing team of registered nurses (RNs), licensed practical nurses (LPNs), licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) and nurse practitioners (NPs) who undergo many hours of training to become Service Associates (SAs) with the Red Cross’ Disaster Health Services. In addition to learning first aid, providing care at a shelter, psychological first aid, mass casualty education and deployment training, they also learn how to reunify families that have been separated. Once deployed, they not only provide physical assessments of injured victims who may need to be transported to a hospital for a higher level of care but also provide valuable health care education to victims.

One of the many dedicated nurses in the volunteer nurse corps is registered
nurse, Beth Kartman-Orgel, who has been a nurse for 46 years and a volunteer nurse with the Red Cross for six. During this time, she has deployed to many disaster sites including several in Florida after hurricanes and some in California during wildfires.

“Being deployed is a whole lot different than being a regular nurse,” Beth said. “You need to be able to think on your feet, make do with little to no equipment or support and, at times, without electricity, running water or supervisors because there is no internet or phone service.”

Any nurse will tell you that each day brings with it a whole new set of challenges. However, as a volunteer nurse in the Red Cross, those challenges look somewhat different.

“I love the challenges we face on deployments — the different ethnicities,
languages, and belief systems among staff and clients,” she explained. “I always loved camping, so showering in a truck, washing at a sink with bottled water, if need be, using flashlights to make rounds or give meds or change dressings is all in a day’s work.” Undoubtedly, Beth loves what she does for the Red Cross and has also completed Disaster Health Services supervisor training, which she hopes to utilize on her next deployment.

Deploying to a disaster area after a hurricane or wildfire isn’t the only way nurses can be involved with the Red Cross. Registered nurse, Cindy Russo, has been a volunteer with the Red Cross for 30 years and began her journey in Blood Donor Services at blood drives. Here, she completed donor registrations and medical histories and obtained blood pressure and hemoglobin tests before blood donation. In more recent years, Cindy has predominantly worked in Disaster Health Services, assisting victims after home fires to obtain new prescriptions for their medications and necessary medical equipment like wheelchairs, walkers and oxygen machines. In the past, Cindy has also deployed to regions affected by hurricanes and has even helped install smoke alarms in local homes. After 30 years of volunteering, she has found the work to be extremely rewarding.

“Helping those in a time of need is the most rewarding part,” she said. “It is a great extension of what many nurses do every day and is a way to use their skills and talents to help others.”

If you’re a nurse and want to volunteer with the Red Cross, browse through the listings of volunteer opportunities and complete an online volunteer application.

Edited by Glenda Bogar, Red Cross volunteer
Posted by Ryan Lang, Red Cross board member and volunteer

Red Cross salutes nurses, ‘angels’ of its mercy mission

By Eilene E. Guy, American Red Cross volunteer

Nurses are vital to delivering the lifesaving services of the American Red Cross – an organization founded by Clara Barton, whose own nursing during the Civil War earned her the title “Angel of the Battlefield.”

“Nurses fill so many roles in the Red Cross. We couldn’t function without them,” said Barb Thomas, recovery manager for the Red Cross Northern Ohio Region.

Nationwide, more than 20,000 Red Cross nurses – both paid and volunteer – do everything from caring for disaster victims to working in military hospitals to collecting lifesaving blood. They teach CPR/first aid and disaster preparedness, and even serve in the management and governance of the Red Cross itself.

“Nurses are integral to what we do at the Red Cross, so we try to keep them engaged and be sure they know how much we appreciate them,” Barb said. “We don’t just salute them during National Nurses Week (starting today), but all year long.”

Barb introduced me to two of the dozens of nurses in northern Ohio who apply their time and skills to those who need them, near and far.

Phyllis Esposito of Massillon, Ohio, is enthusiastic about her role in Red Cross disaster health services.

Phyllis Esposito, Red Cross volunteer, with Tim Reichel, Disaster Program Manager, Heartland, Stark and Muskingum Lakes Chapter

“I can honestly say, I talk up the Red Cross every time I can,” she said. “It’s such a rewarding thing. My only regret is, why didn’t I do this 10 years earlier?”

After more than 50 years as an emergency room nurse, Phyllis understands how stressed people can be in the wake of an emergency. She knows how to help calm them, assess their health-related needs and – most importantly – fill those needs.

That can range from getting glasses, dentures or refills for medications lost in a fire evacuation to replacing a child’s aerosol machine or a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine destroyed by a tornado or flood.

Early in her Red Cross “career,” Phyllis was glad to travel to disaster sites, to look after the medical needs of home fire victims, shelter residents or even Red Cross volunteers. But she said as she’s gotten older, she’s glad to be able to serve virtually, reaching out by phone all the way to victims of a hurricane in Louisiana, for example.

This kind of long-distance service is a vital and efficient way for the Red Cross to help local disaster survivors or even a whole community where medical resources are overwhelmed.

“Phyllis is a disaster health service star,” Barb said. “She’s eager to learn as we evolve our ways of helping people, especially as we adjusted to COVID. And her personality just lets people know, there’s light at the end of this dark tunnel they’re in, after a disaster.”

Jennifer Dremann of Deerfield, Ohio, has a special rapport with those who’ve experienced tragedy in the course of a disaster.

Jennifer Dremann, Red Cross volunteer

“I lost my brother in a house fire in 1996; he was 19 years old” when he succumbed to smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide, she said. “He’s why I became a nurse.”

When Jennifer heard about what the Red Cross does, particularly for home fire victims, she knew this was a fit for her. “I’ve lived it; I’ve lost somebody. I’ve done several cases where somebody has passed. It’s got to be the absolute worst nightmare, especially when a child has perished.”

She’s also moved by cases involving an elderly adult who doesn’t have family or social support nearby.

Like Phyllis, she works with folks by phone, day or night, finding out what their disaster-related medical needs are and helping them replace prescriptions and/or medical equipment, navigating insurance and then dipping into Red Cross funds if necessary.

But perhaps the most important help she can give is to listen, not just to survivors’ physical needs but to their emotional wounds. “People are like, ‘You volunteer to do this?’ she said. “I don’t think most people realize what the Red Cross does, and how rewarding it is.”

The Red Cross is proud to have tens of thousands of skilled, compassionate nurses like Phyllis and Jennifer on the team, ready across the country and around the clock to help people prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters.

To learn more about the many services of the Red Cross and how you can be involved as a volunteer, financial supporter or blood donor, go to

Edited by Glenda Bogar, American Red Cross volunteer