As fourth-year medical students, the only disaster my classmates and I have been preparing for these days is the Match. For most of medical school, though, we felt close to impending disaster all the time.
Our own most vivid memories are of Superstorm Sandy flooding our training hospital, but events like it happen every day and everywhere. At the time of this writing, I am on elective at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the “polar vortex,” hospital superbugs, valley fever, cruise ship outbreaks, and a chemical spill that caused 300,000 West Virginians to lose their water supply. That’s a lot for anybody to wrap one’s head around, but unlike most people, physicians are expected to be prepared for the unpredictable.
Medical students bear intimate witness to natural disaster. As trainees, perhaps our greatest strength is our capacity to bring new perspectives on how expertise and systems can fail those who suffer. All medical students know the feeling of being both there and not there for a patient or a community. Often we are among so many other doctors that nobody knows who should do what. Other times nobody is available to help at all. We’re ready to help out, yet unsure about what, if anything, we can contribute to the team.
This issue’s cover story by Paul Wynn reviews the state of a team working to put more disaster preparedness education into American medical schools. He provides some striking data that show a huge unmet demand for coursework in relief organization and disaster science. Most surprisingly, however, Wynn meets with some medical educators who are just as ambivalent as their students about their own disaster preparedness.
Mass suffering is as baffling as it is preventable, and more baffling the more preventable it is. Does medical school make us complicit in plagues we’d once vowed to prevent? Do we have survivor’s guilt about storms we didn’t weather? How do we go on from disasters we witness? Who is there to help us? In this issue we hope to pose a few of these questions. Done right, disaster preparedness training might help clinicians claim their role as professionals in solidarity with the victims of natural disaster.
Editorial Advisory Board