With less than a day’s notice, Monica Staples, DNP, RN, recently embarked on a mission to support Afghan refugees with medical and other in-flight needs as they traveled to the U.S. from Germany.
“These passengers, in their worst hours, showed resiliency and hope, and I was grateful to have helped during this small step in a long journey ahead,” said Staples, nurse manager in the Brigham Dialysis Unit, staff nurse in the Massachusetts General Hospital Emergency Department and a member of the Mass General Center for Global Health’s Global Disaster Response and Humanitarian Action Team (GDRHA).
For the Aug. 29-31 deployment, the GDRHA team — which provides a professional response to those affected by disasters and emergencies — partnered with Americares, another nonprofit disaster relief and global health organization.
“Stronger medical support was needed on flights because there had been some critical medical issues and fairly sick passengers on previous transport trips,” said Staples. “I worked with two pilots who are trained as emergency medical responders (EMRs) to assess and address passengers’ medical needs.”
While most of the medical issues on this flight were not critical, Staples said they treated passengers for constipation, dental pain and low-grade fevers. She and her EMR colleagues also distributed diapers and formula to families with babies and young children.
“We provided medications and education as needed,” Staples said. “Mostly, people were exhausted. They were wearing the clothes they had evacuated with and had very few belongings, which they carried in trash bags or sheets tied in knots.”
Staples, who also worked with two Afghan translators to communicate with passengers and provide culturally sensitive care and support, said she observed the strong sense of community among the passengers.
“These people had come from all different areas and were strangers to each other,” she said. “But they helped each other put things in overhead bins, adjust seats and make space for children to lay down and sleep. They banded together, especially in caring for the children on board. They were incredibly positive and calm, especially given the circumstances they had fled.”
‘Helping Others in Their Darkest Hour’
Staples is no stranger to humanitarian and relief efforts, having participated in numerous deployments all over the world during the last decade.
Her interest in these efforts began in 2010 when she was a member of the Mass General Hazmat Response team and traveled to the Middle East to teach hazmat response.
After that experience, she joined the GDRHA team and was deployed to Nepal for earthquake relief efforts in 2015. Staples also works on a per diem basis with a company that provides transport for patients who have been injured and require an in-flight critical care team. And, as a member of D-MAT, the federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team, she helped evacuate cruise ship passengers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I am passionate about helping people in their darkest hour,” she said. “There are so many opportunities in nursing to do that.”
When she decided to join the Brigham’s Dialysis Unit in August 2020, it was because she was drawn to the clinic’s structure, dedicated staff, supportive director and the opportunity to learn new things.
“It’s a positive place to work, and it enables me to gain more experience in dialysis care,” said Staples. “I’ve seen in emergency response that dialysis patients need to be prioritized, and I’ve learned more about these patients’ needs through my current role.”
Thinking Globally? ‘Start Locally’
Staples frequently hears from others who are interested in learning more about how to participate in similar global humanitarian efforts.
Her advice: “Start locally,” she said. “Get comfortable with things like shelter operations here in Massachusetts and supporting local organizations, such as the Medical Reserve Corp. Often, we’re not practicing emergency medicine on our missions; we’re providing general medical care, tending to basic needs and helping people gain shelter and food. That is really what this work often involves.”