Thursday, February 27, 2003

N.Ky. nurse one of first to get vaccine

'I didn't sleep well. Today is the day'

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

EDGEWOOD - Jennifer Hunter's bicep shows that she's a bioterror warrior.

But she can't show it to her kids yet.

The 36-year-old registered nurse is one of the Tristate's brave shock troops, one of the first 11 health care workers in Greater Cincinnati to roll up their sleeves for the smallpox vaccine.

[photo] Jennifer Hunter of the Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Department.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
Hunter was vaccinated last week in Frankfort and separated herself from her children to prevent possibly spreading the deadly virus.

The quality assurance manager for the Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Department and 10 other Northern Kentucky nurses will give other health care workers their vaccinations.

Kentucky is one of the first 20 states to begin vaccinating health care workers. As part of a coordinated plan, the state hopes to vaccinate up to 8,000 first responders and health care workers. President Bush ordered the release of the smallpox vaccine as a national security measure last summer amid fears of terrorist attacks.

Once one of the most feared diseases, smallpox, a highly contagious virus, killed hundreds of millions of people in past centuries. However, it hasn't been seen in the United States since 1949. The only acknowledged stockpiles of the virus are in government laboratories in the United States and Russia.

While the disease itself kills many of its victims and severely disfigures others, even "shedding" virus from an inoculation site can put children, the elderly or people with lowered immune systems at risk.

Hunter, who says the national smallpox inoculation plan is "what nursing's all about," is keeping a daily journal documenting her smallpox experiences.

Age: 36.
Family: Husband, Gary; daughters Brennah, 4, and Laurel, 18 months.
Education: Working on master's in nursing administration. Has associate and bachelor's degrees in nursing. Graduate of Newport Central Catholic High School, 1985.
Residence: Highland Heights.
Employment: 15-year employee of Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Department. The registered nurse has served as the health department's quality assurance manager for two years.
Recent accomplishments: One of first 11 nurses in Tristate to volunteer for smallpox vaccination. Scheduled to graduate from the Kentucky Public Health Leadership Institute this April. Developed the four-county health district's "pre-event vaccination plan'' for possible smallpox attack, 2002-03. Updated health district's Disaster Response and Recovery Plan, 2001.
"I can't control (a smallpox attack), but if something does happen, it's my job to assure the public that we have this under control," Hunter said.

5:20 a.m. Feb. 19: I didn't sleep well. Today is the day. It is finally here after months of reading, looking at pictures, and watching videos about smallpox. This time it will be my body being exposed to the virus. I wish it was 5 p.m. I want it over!

So far, only three serious reactions have been reported out of more than 100,000 military vaccinations, and none has been reported among the 4,200 health care workers who've received the smallpox vaccine.

To avoid any potential health risk to her young daughters, Hunter stayed away from her family for the past week, and communicated with them via phone calls and e-mail.

7:10 p.m. Feb. 18: Because I have to get my smallpox vaccine, remember.

"Oh, yeah, I remember. So you can help those sick people.''

Hunter had planned to wait until the scab fell off the area where she'd been vaccinated, indicating it was safe for others to touch the area.

But Tuesday, she couldn't fight her maternal instincts any longer. Hunter triple-bandaged her arm and put on a thick sweatshirt so that she could be reunited with her husband, Gary, and daughters Brennah, 4, and Laurel, 18 months, at their Highland Heights home.

"For the past week, they've called and left voice-mail messages saying, `Mommy, I miss you so much.' " Hunter said before leaving work Tuesday. "I just can't stand it any more. I need their little arms around my neck.''

Feb. 18: As a nurse, I am going to make a historical difference. I will be vaccinated against smallpox tomorrow and then come back and implement the plan that I've been working on tirelessly for almost one year. The day is finally here. I feel excited, worried, sad and anxious. All of these feelings are like a roller-coaster. But I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Hunter's indoctrination into "disaster nursing" was as part of a tetanus shot response team responding to the flood that covered Falmouth with feet of muddy water in 1997.

"When the water receded, I was put on a bus with a walkie-talkie and a backpack, and they dropped us off in Falmouth and assigned us so many streets," she recalled.

"For three days, we went house to house to see if people needed any wound care or resources. ... We also gave tetanus shots to hundreds of people at the shelter that the Red Cross had set up at the high school. That's when I fell in love with disaster nursing.''

The day after Hunter returned from maternity leave - Sept. 11, 2001 - her supervisor put her in charge of updating the Northern Kentucky health department's disaster plan.

"I wanted to go to New York, but I was turned away because they had too many volunteers,'' she said. "The Red Cross said they had lists and lists of nurses.''

Instead, Hunter focused on creating a disaster team of 15 Northern Kentuckians who would use their varied skills in the event of natural or man-made disasters.

The next phase of her disaster training began in January 2002, when the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention canceled an immunization teleconference.

"The reason they gave for canceling was that the doctors who were doing it were working on a smallpox plan,'' Hunter said. Since the World Health Organization had declared smallpox eradicated in 1980, Hunter thought that was odd.

"Then the rumors started,'' she said. "Smallpox could be used as a bioterrorist agent and the government was looking into it.''

Because of Hunter's expertise in disaster planning, she was put in charge of developing the health department's pre-event smallpox vaccination plan. The focus of the plan, which ultimately numbered more than 100 pages, would be on medical and emergency personnel who would give other people vaccinations or investigate cases of suspected contamination.

Feb. 20: Everyone at (a statewide nursing) presentation wanted to see my arm and hear my story.... My arm is slightly red at the site but no major reactions.

"Jennifer has coordinated our disaster planning, so it was natural for her to be so involved in this special smallpox effort,'' said Dr. Gary Crum, director of the Northern Kentucky health department. "We're very pleased with the effort she's made on behalf of the Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Department. We feel like we're in the forefront of this smallpox readiness effort in large part because of her efforts.''


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