In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Roberta Lavin’s nursing management skills were called on in a big way. A U.S. Public Health Service officer at the time, Lavin found herself helping in the Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson’s Command Center in Washington D.C. She eventually managed the center, which supported a team of experts and junior officers responding to the attacks.
It wasn’t an easy task, but Lavin’s public health background prepared her for it. She had already coordinated mass migrations from Guatemala, managed health care in an immigration detention center in Batavia, New York, worked for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Tucson, Arizona, and spent a few months “tooling around” the South Pacific on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel.
For her numerous contributions to public health and the nursing field, the American Academy of Nursing has named Lavin a fellow. It’s a cherry on top of an incredible career for the now associate dean for academic programs in the College of Nursing at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
“I was a little bit surprised,” she said of the honor.
Lavin faced challenges and decisions that affected thousands of people, an especially hard task in high-pressure disaster situations.
“The real thing is far more chaotic than anything we can imagine,” she said. “And it’s chaotic for many reasons. You may have supplies, but you can’t get them from point A to point B because the roads are closed, or there is some obstruction. Any number of things can happen.”
But her numerous experiences added up to a vast knowledge that Lavin used to form national disaster management policies – the very polices put into action during today’s disasters.
“I’m proud of the creation of the Disaster Case Management Program,” she said, “because it really did put in place a national program that provided disaster case management services to those people who are poor and underserved, the people I set out to help when I became a nurse and went into the USPHS.
“But I also consider the work we did on the National Commission of Children and Disasters significant as well,” Lavin continued. “We basically said to the government and all those people that respond that children aren’t little adults and need to be planned for very specifically. After all, they are 25 percent of our population.”
Lavin’s work may not fit the stereotypical nursing career, but she didn’t expect that anyway. She grew up reading “Cherry Ames.”
“They were kind of like nurse mystery stories, so I had somewhat of a different image about what I thought nursing would be,” Lavin said.
That’s one point she always stresses to students interested in pursuing a nursing degree at UMSL, too.
“Life as a nurse isn’t limited to a hospital,” Lavin said. “There is a broad scope of career options available from case management to basic first aid.”
Nurses specializing in public health and, specifically, disaster preparedness are in increasing demand as well. Lavin said people often have a misconception that disasters are rare occurrences, but that’s just not the case.
“Mass casualty events are uncommon,” she said. “Disasters are not. We have an American Red Cross that probably responds to a fire or two every single day in St. Louis. For that family, that is a disaster. People want to think about disaster as being hurricane Katrinas or Ritas or think about them being 9/11, but disasters occur on a very regular basis, and the average person doesn’t see them because it doesn’t impact them.”
But if it does, it’s good to know esteemed nurses like Lavin know exactly what to do.