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SLU Expert Helps Nurses Around the Globe Prepare for the Worst


Like generations of nurses before her, Joanne C. Langan, Ph.D., RN, CNE has answered the call when the unthinkable strikes.

Joanne Langan, Ph.D., RN, stands before the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency. Langan was in the country to give a talk to Bahamian nurses and health care officials. Submitted photo

Joanne Langan, Ph.D., RN, CNE, stands before the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency. Langan was in the country in the spring of 2020 to talk and train with Bahamian nurses and health care officials. Submitted photo

Passionate about helping people in need when disasters strike, she has devoted her career, research and teaching to preparing other nurses around the world to help their patients cope in the moment and heal for the future.

Langan, professor of nursing in the Trudy Busch Valentine School of Nursing, is an internationally known expert in the field of disaster preparedness, response and recovery. Her work was sparked by her experiences in a military family, one that survived earthquakes, mudslides, hurricanes, tornadoes, winter storms and mass power outages.

Digging Deep to Thrive and to Prepare Others

Away from the St. Louis area for 25 years as her husband pursued a career in the United States Navy, Langan found herself facing the unknown as the family moved from West to East Coast and to other postings.

“I was out of my comfort zone in having to seek out new friends and support systems and to be flexible to a myriad of new situations and challenges,” Langan recalled. “Our first child – eventually we had four – was three months old before his dad even met him as John was deployed for nine months at that time. I sold our house in San Diego, moved back to St. Louis, had the baby and then found a townhouse for us to rent and unpacked all of the household goods by myself – with a newborn.”

“Those events were my own kind of ‘disaster’ in that I had to dig deep to develop my own resilience and to find ways to cope with circumstances beyond my control,” she continued. “I had to use whatever resources I could garner in my new living situations – West Coast, Gulf Coast and East coast. It is amazing what we can do when pressed; we all have an amazing ability to deal with challenges if we focus on priorities, one at a time.”

These experiences led her to conduct research with disaster survivors to inform community planners, nurses and other health care providers regarding the best evidence-based practices to help citizens prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters.

Learning from Others Abroad

Soon after the devastating terrorist attacks of 9/11, Langan and a SLU team traveled to Israel to learn about effective disaster planning and response systems in other countries. The trip resulted in her first textbook, Preparing Nurses for Disaster Management (Langan & James, 2005).

“One of the greatest takeaways from Israel was their resolve to treat all patients with respect as individual human beings,” Langan said. “This was no different for the innocent victim or the perpetrator. Unfortunately, Israel was dealing with multiple incidents such as suicide bombers. They still conducted multiple drills/year to continue to learn and improve their disaster response and recovery efforts. We all need multiple drills with active participation every year so that we are able to respond quickly, efficiently and competently.”

In the years following her work in Israel, Langan has continued to train collaboratively with nurses globally and contributes to the Society for Advancement of Disaster Nursing (SADN) as an executive committee member and chair of the society’s education committee. She has been working with SADN since 2014.

As part of that work, Langan and other leading experts have reviewed what nurses were doing globally to engage in teaching, research and service related to disaster preparedness, response and relief. The review has led to new research, publications and the creation of teaching toolkits to further training and the implementation of best practices in disaster situations.

Bringing Knowledge Home to Help Others

At the Valentine School of Nursing, Langan has offered a disaster preparedness continuing education course on-line where nurses received certificates of completion for modules they accomplished in the past. During the fall semester, she currently teaches an elective class for nurses on disaster preparedness.  

“The students sense my passion for the subject matter and really engage in an interactive class presence,” Langan said. “For those who wish to earn an extra course credit, they must attend a Disaster-Preparedness community-based meeting and actively participate in a community-based disaster drill, write reports and share their experiences with their classmates. This is where theory meets practice; they can see where the concepts learned are applied to real life scenarios.”

In addition to her teaching and research, Langan has also served as the school’s associate dean. Her service goes beyond SLU as through her work as a board member of the American Red Cross and a committee member for the activities to help and honor service members and their families.

Due to her research, Langan was asked to help author the International Council of Nurses (ICN) Core Competencies in Disaster Nursing, Version 2.0 (2019). As a result of that collaborative effort in the fall of 2018, the ICN requested that she co-lead a series of workshops in the Bahamas in the spring of 2020.

Learn More About Langan's Bahamas Training

Langan and her partners are currently working on a new textbook, Preparing Nurses for Disaster Management: A Global Approach. She continues to teach a disaster preparedness elective to nursing students in the spirit of her belief that, “Every nurse should be a prepared nurse.”

“It is very rewarding to me to be able to provide "tools" to people to be prepared to be safe,” she said. “If my students accomplish one thing through my work – to develop their own personal preparedness plan – I will have been a success. These nurses will then teach others what they know, and many lives can be better protected and saved in the long run.”

More About What Drives Langan’s Work

How do you see your passion for this work, and the resulting research and training you do, as carrying out SLU’s Jesuit mission?

We can best be men and women for others if we are first prepared ourselves for disasters.

No nurse or other health care provider can help others if they take undue risks and do not protect themselves first. For every nurse that is not prepared or injured needlessly, there are countless patients who will not receive the benefit of their care.

As in Israel, we carry out the Jesuit mission by caring for all with respect for human life, regardless of their status in life, whether victim or perpetrator.

Our decisions during mass casualty events are based on the ethical principle "the greatest good for the greatest number."

Why do you see preparing nursing students to work in disaster response situations as critical to our world today?

Yes, I continue to learn about this field through research and writing as it is critical to our global society.

We have evolved into a more mobile society and we need to be ready to prepare and protect in all care delivery sites – acute care, long term care, community-based, battlefield/military, etc.

Nurses will be called upon to assist, even if at home in their own communities. Nurses are great teachers and will be called upon to provide accurate, up-to-date information as we are trusted to do this.

Do you see it as connected to the history and evolution of the nursing field?

We have evolved in our recognition as professionals who are trusted, knowledgeable and obligated to assist others for the greater good. Our evolution has also provided us with opportunities to engage our colleagues on a global scale in the spirit of collaboration and sharing lessons learned.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated 2020 as the “Year of the Nurse and Nurse Midwives,” in order to highlight the need for increased numbers of nurses and midwives worldwide. As part of the year’s celebrations, and to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of famed nursing advocate Florence Nightingale, the University is telling the stories of SLU nurses who impact communities on and beyond campus through their teaching, outreach and research in a limited special series.

Story by Amelia Flood, University Marketing and Communications.