When you’re having the worst day of your life, April Sweatman is the nurse you want by your side. A weekend charge nurse in the Emergency Department at Atrium Health Navicent Baldwin, Sweatman is also a member of a National Disaster Medical System disaster medical assistance team which provides a rapid response when emergencies overwhelm state, local, tribal or territorial resources.
When Hurricane Ian tore through Florida in late September 2022 as a Category 4 storm, Sweatman was there in the aftermath, helping patients in their most dire times.
“You’re going into a situation where there’s a loss of control. Being an Emergency Department nurse, when I see patients, it’s the worst day of their life. When you go into a disaster, it’s not just their worst day, it’s their family’s worst day. ... Just being there, talking with them and holding their hands when they are scared is the most rewarding feeling ever,” Sweatman said.
Operating A Tent Emergency Room
Due to the effects of Hurricane Ian, Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers, the hospital where Sweatman was stationed, went without power and water for periods of time. Sweatman and her team organized an emergency room augmentation — a space set up to operate like a typical emergency room — but instead it’s located in a tent.
“When the call came to assist in Florida, I was expecting it. Florida’s southwest coast experienced intense heavy damage by Hurricane Ian. In the city of Fort Myers, the highest water level reached 15 feet above the normal high-water level,” she said.
Sweatman spent 14 days in Fort Myers with a cadre of 34 other medical professionals. She’s a member of GA-3, the National Disaster Medical System’s sole Georgia group, which is deployed all over the country when disaster strikes. Every team is on standby for one full month, three times a year.
“We know that in that month, if a disaster strikes, we are expected to be ready. And so, I’m ready at a moment’s notice if anything should happen. I keep a suitcase ready and packed to go at all times,” she said.
Sweatman first heard about the group after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in 2010. Several co-workers at the hospital where she worked at the time were deploying to help with the emergency, and she found herself wondering how she could use her skills to help.
“Everyone wanted to help, everyone wanted to do something. But what? Sending money and goods was one option, but I wanted to physically go and do something. When I heard from a firefighter and a nurse friend that they were going, I wanted to know how I could get involved,” she said.
Life got busy and it wasn’t until 2016 that Sweatman applied to join the National Disaster Medical System. Approval and acceptance took three years. Since joining the group in 2019, she has been deployed five times. Her first deployment was to support an intensive care unit in Johnson City, Tennessee during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 85-bed ICU only had six nurses. Another deployment took her to an emergency room augmentation in Rhode Island. She spent 14 days there, during a blizzard, filling the need for skilled nurses.
When the COVID-19 vaccine first became available, Sweatman was dispatched as one of the very first teams to start the vaccination process. In Tucson, Arizona, she helped administer over 10,000 vaccinations in just two weeks.
Sweatman values the sense of community she sees among medical professionals who are deployed in times of need.
“The staff at Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers, I can’t get over how welcoming they were to us. They were trying to feed us their food, trying to make sure we had our needs met. They wanted to make sure we were comfortable. When we were there for them, they were worried about us,” she said.
‘Milledgeville Is My Home’
Hurricane Ian was Sweatman’s most recent deployment, and the day after she returned home, she was back on the job in Milledgeville, where she has worked for three years.
“Milledgeville is my home. That’s my hospital. That’s where I belong. I’m so very grateful for my co-workers. They are so supportive when I go. Especially in my role as a charge nurse, when I leave them short staffed, they always step up and don’t complain — even when I leave with 24-hour’s notice. They always reach out when I’m gone to check on me, and they tell me ‘thank you’ when I come home. I’m so grateful to have their love and support.”
A nurse for 18 years, Sweatman said her career continues to be rewarding. She knew from a young age that she wanted to be a nurse, and has never wavered from her passion.
“Even as a kid, I always wanted to help people. I was always interested in making people feel better. It’s been my passion since I was really small,” she said. “In the long run, the reward you receive from taking care of people is so much more than what you can give; it is a career that is just amazing. I could never see myself doing anything else.”