When a "nightmare" health-care scenario occurs in our state - a highly contagious, dread virus like Ebola; radiation exposure from a breach at a nuclear power facility; an accidental yet potentially lethal chemical spill - who are the brave souls who put their own safety at risk to provide high quality care to those whose very existence threatens the lives of their fellow Mississippians?
The Special Response Team (SRT), an elite group of nurses at the University of Mississippi Medical Center highly trained to treat the worst conditions mankind or nature has to offer, is prepared at a moment's notice to respond to any number of potentially catastrophic health-care threats safely and efficiently.
Jonathan Wilson, chief administrative officer, said the team allows the Medical Center to provide effective and efficient emergency care, regardless of the cause.
"The SRT will work seamlessly with our daily operations and greatly enhance our role to support Mississippi in an emergency," Wilson said. "This small group of well-trained, well-equipped staff uses the latest technology to care for patients in a unique environment.
"The SRT will maintain a constant state of readiness for 24-7 response and will stay current on emerging infectious diseases, potential risks for terrorism and other large-scale threats."
The SRT works out of the Special Care Unit (SCU), a biocontainment facility housed in the University Rehabilitation Center on the north side of UMMC's main campus. Specially equipped for the treatment of patients with infectious diseases or exposure to hazardous materials, the SCU was created in collaboration with the Mississippi State Department of Health and the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
"As an academic health sciences campus, UMMC has the critical infrastructure, clinical services and research expertise to effectively establish the capability for caring for patients with high-risk conditions needing specialized care," Wilson said. "Development of the SCU ensures the safety and well-being of the affected patient, the general patient population, visitors, employees, the community and the organization."
The SCU came about last year after the first case of Ebola was diagnosed on American soil, according to Jason Smith, emergency services manager.
"Ebola was the wheel that put this in motion," said Smith, who coordinates the SRT. "Every few years, there's always some kind of threat - biological, chemical, radiological - that receives attention from the media. Anthrax scare, SARS, weapons of mass destruction - it's a daily focus from an emergency management standpoint.
"In the ER, we are constantly looking for patients who are highly virulent, highly contagious, who might require additional isolation from what other patients might require. The premise behind this team, being all-hazards, is to be a lot more educated and trained on taking care of a patient that could require this level of isolation."
The "cold room" in the SCU - the place where the SRT members "suit up" to see patients in the fully equipped "hot room" - looks like any other supply area at the Medical Center: a couple of long tables stacked with equipment line two walls, various medical apparatus stand ready for use, a solitary chair rests in a corner.
The only sure giveaways that this is a prep room for the treatment of potentially dangerous conditions is the abundance of duct tape rolls that lie scattered about - vital to sealing any openings in the health-care providers' containment suits - and a stack of white headgear with large visors attached.
Each SRT member well understands the risks involved with treating patients requiring isolation - the "sickest of the sick," as Sarah Goff calls them. But the adult emergency room nurse - like every other SRT volunteer - sees beyond the potential risk to self.
"This unit is something that's really going to distinguish UMMC on a national scale," Goff said. "Not a lot of hospitals have the capability to be a part of this unit. It's a great opportunity for the people of Mississippi.
"If the worst does happen, they can get the care they need here rather than travel somewhere else if they get sick."
Besides, she said, it's a natural part of being an emergency room nurse.
"Most people who work in the ER are going to be faced with a patient who needs to be isolated," she said. "You've got to know how to protect yourself.
"This is just taking it a little farther."
Lindsay Faulkner, a pediatric cardiac ICU nurse, knows a little something about putting another's interests ahead of her own. One of the reasons she volunteered for the SRT is so some of her coworkers won't have to.
"A lot of the people I work with (in the pediatric ICU) have kids and have families, and I don't," she said. "I choose to take the responsibility so they don't have to."
She said having SRT members trained in pediatrics is vital, should a major condition materialize.
"If we do have any pediatrics patients, I think I would be more equipped to treat them because pediatrics is so specialized," she said. "It's what I do every day."
Preparing for worst-case scenarios comes almost second nature to Todd McRaney. The staff nurse in the pediatric emergency room has volunteered with Mississippi Med-1, the state medical assistance team, for years. Sponsored by UMMC, Med-1 provides onsite delivery of medical care during disasters.
"Our patients can't help it if they get exposed to a deadly disease," McRaney said. "I've been in nursing and done pediatrics for 18 years. In a way, I'd be selfish not to help those patients in their time of need.
"I feel an obligation to serve."
Although other health-care personnel at UMMC share that sense of obligation, Smith said the SRT is limited to nursing professionals - for now.
"Going forward, we could have ancillary personnel trained as part of the team," he said. "But we've strictly limited it to nursing in the beginning to make sure it serves the needs that we know of now."
He said physicians have trained with SRT members and would be available to provide direct patient care in the "hot room." But thanks to the modern marvel of telemedicine, physicians also can help treat dangerously ill patients from an adjacent area.
"They can provide consultations without having to be at bedside," Smith said. "But patients (in the SCU) will always have a nurse or a physician working with a nurse at their bedside constantly.
"For any one patient in the unit, a minimum of four nurses will be delivering care each shift. Compare that to the ICU, where one nurse has two patients, or on the floors, where nurses provide care for five or six patient at a time."
A large number of available slots on the SRT already have been filled, but Smith is still looking for the right individuals to round out the staff. Financial incentives are available and experience and physical fitness requirements do apply.
Specific qualifications are available on the Human Resources website at umc.edu/hr/. For more information or to volunteer for the Special Response Team, call Smith at 5-2665 or email firstname.lastname@example.org