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Nurse who frequently deploys to disasters pursues online master's so she can be even more amazing

by Alexandra Petcharich

Feb 22, 2021, 12:00 PM.

Wendy Wheeler will not accept the title of “hero,” even when a stranger tries to pin it on her.
Wendy Wheeler
Wendy Wheeler

A critical care nurse in Connecticut who accompanies sick children by ambulance to specialty facilities in the Northeast, Wheeler also serves two-week stints around the country as a member of one of the federal government’s Disaster Medical Assistance Teams. Soon she will deploy for the fifth time in just over a year in support of a medical center overwhelmed by COVID-19.

A married, 50-something grandmother of two who a few years ago gave breast cancer the brush off—“This is not going to stop me from doing anything” she resolved at the time—Wheeler in August began the FIU Online master’s in disaster management within the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work.

In between trips transporting young patients, Wheeler takes on the hard jobs at the hospital where she’s based: emergency department, trauma response and other scenarios in which the clock presents as an enemy.

A few years back, Wheeler was participating in a government-sponsored training conducted by FIU’s Academy for International Disaster Preparedness at the Biscayne Bay Campus in Miami when she first heard about the graduate program.

As a member of her hospital’s emergency management planning committee and the local chapter of the Emergency Nurses Association, Wheeler thought it seemed a perfect fit for her. “We’re looking at broadening our scope and how we can help better and is there a way we can store details of how we respond on stuff,” she says of the groups to which she belongs. “This degree works right in with that.”

The big-picture view that Wheeler seeks is exactly what her studies aim to provide. With dozens of deployments to her credit—beginning with one to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina in 2004—she understands the value of a holistic approach to emergency situations. Swooping in as part of a well-oiled team that offers a quick burst of help is great, but leadership often needs to devise systems that will continue to work long term for the target community or organization. And that type of thinking has value at the facility level too, she says.

“You need to look at every different single part of the scenario and not just be tunnel visioned into what your position is responsible for,” Wheeler says of what she’s learning. “I see this day to day at work. The nurse’s primary thing is, ‘O.k., I need to get my patient from point A to point B,” she explains, “but then look at all the logistics that go along with it, and what are all the resources we need.”

For Wheeler, juggling work and life comes naturally, so pursuing a master’s degree in the midst of a pandemic seemed doable. And FIU has helped make it possible. Not only do online courses fit Wheeler’s schedule, she can rely on the faculty and staff to take her job responsibilities into consideration during this unprecedented time. “They work with me,” she says. “I can’t say enough about how great they have been.”

One recent deployment had her worried in advance about completing assignments for classes that had yet to begin. So she called the program director to ask how she might get ahead. Instructors quickly reached out to provide information and resources.

And lest anyone worry that Wheeler crash and burn amid her current crammed-full existence, the indefatigable nurse takes it all in stride as she sums up her work in the simplest of terms:

“To connect with a human is so important and just telling people that they’re safe, that goes a long way. And telling them that you’re there to care for them gives them the support that they need. Sometimes it’s just taking that five minutes to sit and talk with somebody to make somebody feel better, to make them feel valued and feel like they’re not lost in the system.”

With Wheeler by one’s side, lost is out of the question.

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