Students See Disaster and Resilience in Northern Wisconsin

Each spring, several University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing undergraduate students spend three weeks in northern Wisconsin with a faculty member, to learn about public health and nursing in rural communities.

This year, they also helped with tornado recovery efforts.

Nursing students and older adults in northern Wisconsin
Photo by Pam Guthman

“I spoke with the family of an older gentleman who lived on his own in one of the trailer homes that was destroyed,” said nursing student Emily Menting. “He’s in his 90s and hard of hearing and not that steady on his feet. And now he’s displaced from his home.”

After a tornado struck Chetek on May 16, the Red Cross worked with the man and his adult children to connect him to housing and other supports.

“There were lots of great programs offered, but it would have been very challenging for him to figure it all out on his own,” said Menting, one of seven students in this spring’s rural immersion program.

Nursing student Tenzin Kunsang had a similar experience, while working with Red Cross care managers.

“Two couples came because their mom was injured. She was in the hospital and had lost her medications in the tornadoes. Her children were looking for help because they didn’t know what would happen after she left the hospital,” said Kunsang. “Would she be able to go back to her mobile home or need to go to a nursing home?”

Kunsang connected the family with the county Aging and Disability Resource Center, a one-stop shop for information and resources.

The students remarked on the widespread poverty in rural Rusk and Barron counties and saw how a natural disaster strains families and communities. But they were impressed with ongoing efforts to support rural aging, from transportation to home safety to weatherization programs.

“There are a lot more options provided by the community than I was aware of previously,” said Menting. “Now I’ll be able to better research and understand what’s in my area and what I can recommend to patients.”

The students also offered more typical health education and promotion activities.

After introducing themselves to a local group of older adults who gather over morning coffee, “We talked to them about blood pressure, diabetes, falls prevention and foot care,” said Kunsang. “We discussed the small things they can do for themselves to prevent disease. Afterwards, they wanted to know more about their health. One gentleman eagerly asked me, ‘Can you take my blood pressure, would you?’”

The coffee group’s organizer praised nursing student Maryan Mohamud for her ability to engage a member of the group who is living with dementia.

As nursing student “Deepa Shah was leading the group in some basic exercises, he was having difficulty following the directions,” said UW–Madison School of Nursing Clinical Assistant Professor Pam Guthman, DNP, RN-BC, who led the rural immersion program. “But when Maryan somehow got him to stand up and swing his arms, his face lit up.”

Mohamud, who is from Somalia, also welcomed questions about her culture. A woman in the coffee group asked about her head scarf.

“She first said I really don’t want to offend you, but she wanted to know about the purpose of my scarf,” said Mohamud. “She asked how I tie it and I just undid my scarf and showed her. She asked a few other questions. I noticed that others were listening, which was good.”

The rural immersion program is designed to encourage students to explore public health nursing and rural nursing. This spring’s program succeeded on both counts with Shane Hoffman.

Hoffman, who grew up in Lake Mills, applied because “I wanted to see how different Madison-area rural is from northern Wisconsin. I could see myself working in a rural clinic, so I wanted to see what that would be like, too.”

–Diane Farsetta