By Gordon Williams
Most of the articles that appear in this blog describe the contributions of those who volunteer with the American Red Cross. More than 90 percent of Red Cross workers are volunteers, and without them the organization could not carry out its mission of caring for disaster victims.
Sadly, this article reports the passing of one of the most deeply committed volunteers in the Red Cross Northwest region — Joanne Kellie. A veteran nurse, Kellie was regional program lead for Red Cross Disaster Health Services (DHS).
Since she first volunteered at the Red Cross in 2018, Kellie had deployed to some very demanding disasters. When I interviewed her last summer, she had already responded to wildfires near Grand Coulee and Wenatchee, Washington and to a cooling center in Wenatchee.
The mission of the Red Cross goes beyond sheltering the victims of fires and floods and the like. There are also the health needs of those being sheltered to be considered. The job of tending to those medical needs falls to Disaster Health Services, staffed for the most part by medical professionals.
During our interview, I asked Kellie how DHS volunteers serve Red Cross clients. “We respond whenever there are health care needs, whatever the disaster,” she explained. A client might arrive at a shelter with a serious medical condition, but with all medications left behind at the disaster scene. The stress of fleeing a fire and being lodged in a shelter might worsen an existing health issue.
Once disaster victims have been brought to safety, a Red Cross intake worker will ask about health issues. “Do they have allergies we should know about, for instance,” Kellie explained. “Do they need oxygen? Did they have medications that were lost in the disaster? Once we know what they need, we can make a plan on how to provide it.”
Red Cross health workers can’t prescribe medications, but they can help get prescriptions filled. And they can help provide medical gear to replace what has been left behind. When clients are evacuated from a disaster scene, they must go with whatever they can grab. Not only are medications likely to be left behind, but so are eyeglasses, hearing aids and wheelchairs.
Often the client merely needs to be reminded when to take medication, but sometimes the need for on-scene care becomes urgent. Kellie said she had aided clients who arrived at a shelter seriously ill from cancer. “We have had clients who had strokes in the past,” she said. Clients with chronic medical conditions must be watched closely while under Red Cross care. Beyond tending to the physical needs of clients, DHS workers work with Red Cross mental health professionals.
There are also Red Cross disability integration specialists who provide whatever is needed to allow shelter residents to function as they did before the disaster. That could mean finding a replacement for a lost wheelchair.to assist a client who otherwise would be bed-bound.
There are also the Red Cross workers staffing the shelter. Working long hours under physical and emotional stress can take a toll. So Red Cross health workers keep watch on their colleagues for signs of someone needing help.
So, what brought Kellie to the Red Cross? “I was interested in helping others and I was very impressed with the Red Cross,” she explained. With the Red Cross, she could build on her first experience as a healthcare volunteer at a disaster scene. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami found her aiding victims on Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean.
Kellie had an obvious hankering for adventure, and much of her career was spent in overseas postings. She spent more than six years at a Cleveland Clinic facility in Abu Dhabi. “My two children were born in Saudi Arabia,” she told me.
It was being able to help people when they needed help the most that kept her a committed Red Cross volunteer. When I interviewed her, she talked about her work earlier in the summer at the Wenatchee cooling center, opened during last June’s record heatwave. “Most of our clients at the cooling center were homeless, and they were so appreciative of all we did,” she said. “That’s what makes our work so worthwhile. We see so much gratitude from the people we help. It is that gratitude from clients that keeps us going.”
Full-fledged DIsaster Health Services workers need to be medical professionals — doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners and physician assistants, trained paramedics, and emergency medical technicians. But there is also a need for ancillary care volunteers — not licensed professionals, but certified as having healthcare skills.
If you have the requisite requirements, and if the Joanne Kellie story inspires you to serve, you can volunteer for Red Cross Disaster Health Services. Go to redcross.org/volunteertoday to learn how to put those skills to good use — not only in the Red Cross Northwest Region, but anywhere in the world where disaster victims need medical help.