Medical Students Respond to Sugar Factory Disaster

Within minutes of the explosion at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth on Feb. 7, students from Mercer University School of Medicine began springing into action. Several students were on call Thursday evening and immediately received “mass casualty” pages from Memorial Health University Medical Center, where three dozen Mercer medical students are completing their clinical studies. Others saw footage of the disaster on television and headed to the Emergency Room to see if they could help.

“We were afraid we might just be in the way,” said Siri Raju, a fourth-year medical student from Richland who saw the news reports on television. “But we decided it would be better to risk it than to not be there if they needed help.” Raju need not have worried; she ended up in the ICU, where, among other things, she helped rub off burned skin, a process known as debridement, before washing and wrapping the burned areas.

Like Raju, Melissa Rosa, a third-year medical student from Bonaire, was at home when she heard the news. In the car on the way to the hospital, Rosa tried to imagine the scene waiting for her at the ER. “I wasn’t sure what to expect,” she said, “but I knew that times like these reminded me of exactly why I wanted to become a physician.”

The tragedy hit home for Rosa as she assessed the condition of a patient who had severe burns on sixty percent of his body. “We were the same age,” she said. “I helped get supplies to intubate the patient and assisted with manual respirations until a ventilator was available. It was a small role, but it freed the nurses to tend to other patients.”

Rosa also was impressed by the atmosphere in the ER. “I was amazed by how everyone—the attending physicians, resident physicians, nurses, techs, respiratory therapists, students, policemen, firemen—remained calm and so efficient while taking care of so many critical patients at once,” she said. “I was proud to be able to work beside them.”

Rosa was not the only student to note the activity of the hospital and emergency personnel. Thomas Riddell, a third-year student from Atlanta, described the situation in the ER as “tense, apprehensive, but well-prepared.” He said, “It was refreshing to see the various persons come together to help the burn victims. I saw nurses in their pajamas and doctors in their tuxedos…all working in unison for a common cause.”

In all, a dozen Mercer students responded to patient needs at Memorial Health, where they performed a multitude of tasks, from making trips to the blood bank, to calculating fluid requirements and debriding wounds. “I performed whatever task I could to help these patients receive the best treatment, whether it was helping transport patients, removing their clothes, calling the pharmacy for more medications, helping the nurses and respiratory therapists find equipment and supplies, or simply holding the patient’s hand,” said Reanne Parrenas, a fourth-year student from Dalton. “At times during the night I felt helpless and wished that I could do more.”

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