"Doing Something": Oral and Written Narratives of Nurses' Experiences of the September 11, 2001 Disaster

Hickey, Franklin, Nursing - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Wall, Barbra, School of Nursing, University of Virginia

The events of September 11, 2001 (9/11), affected the United States in many ways and changed forever the way nurses responded to disasters. That day, hijackers took control of four commercial airplanes and attacked the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC; and another plane crashed in rural Pennsylvania. After 2,996 deaths occurred and thousands more casualties resulted, the country began a long war in Afghanistan and other areas in the Middle East. With the “narrative turn” in the humanities and social sciences, historians increasingly are influenced by stories and the methods historians use to make sense of events such as 9/11. The disaster yielded a heightened interest in how people respond to catastrophic events. The purpose of this research is to identify, describe, and analyze the responses of local nurses from New York and New Jersey and the challenges faced by the healthcare team the first few days following the disaster. More specifically, this study illustrates how nurses in select hospitals and clinics in New York and New Jersey acted after the disaster and what those experiences meant to them. What activities did nurses carry out after the WTC attack? What challenges did nursing leaders face? How did nurses assemble stories to help them understand the meaning of the 9/11 disaster? What were the contexts in which their stories were created, and how might that shape the participants’ stories? To what extent did nurses’ experiences influence health policy related to disaster preparedness? The study examines oral and written histories of nurses and an autobiographical account of a nurse in New York and New Jersey. It uses analysis of oral histories per Lynn Abrams’ framework on memory and Charles B. Strozier’s “zones of sadness” frame to show how nurses’ experiences differed in meaning, according to where each nurse experienced the disaster in various parts of the region.
Nurses faced situations for which they had not imagined or prepared. In order to make sense of these terrible events, nurses constructed cohesive stories in which they, at first, felt vulnerability, fear, and anger. Narratives eventually were replaced with broader ones of nurses with a sense of purpose, who used their education and technical skills to “do something” in order to help others. These narratives can be opportunities for healing, consolation and a renewed sense of pride in their profession.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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