Auburn's graduate athletic trainers help with tornado recovery

By Troy Johnson, College of Education


Less than a week after a tornado cleaved a 1-mile-wide path of devastation through the middle of Tuscaloosa, Auburn University students Stasia Burroughs, Michael Hickey, Amanda Pizzi and Eileen Strube found themselves at the intersection of heartache and healing.

The four students, each members of Auburn's post-certification Warrior Athletic Training Program, have worked in high-pressure situations and treated all manner of injuries. But even with their ample experience as emergency responders, they were still shocked by what they saw after driving from Auburn to Tuscaloosa in order to serve as Red Cross volunteers.

They found themselves traveling through a landscape brutally reshaped by winds that peaked at nearly 190 mph. They rode through streets where houses had been flattened, where neighborhoods were reduced to indistinguishable piles of rubble.

They saw snapshots of lives interrupted -- a child's doll atop a pile of bricks and splintered wood; a house with only its living room intact, the family photos hanging undisturbed by the force of nature that roared down the street.

They encountered people whose only worldly possessions consist of the clothing on their backs. They met people who were thankful to simply be alive, like the elderly woman who crawled out from beneath the remains of her home or the 20-something man who walked away with a concussion and bruised collar bone despite being thrown from his house by the wind.

"I grew up in Ohio where we have tornadoes, so I've seen a house here or there that was destroyed, but this was such a larger scale," said Burroughs, a Kent, Ohio, native who will graduate with a master's degree in exercise science on Monday. "The areas destroyed looked so ‘open' because there are no buildings."

After Burroughs, Hickey, Pizzi and Strube saw the news footage of the destruction left by the tornado on April 27, they decided to head to Tuscaloosa the next day. As members of the Department of Kinesiology's Warrior Athletic Training Program, they work to treat and prevent injuries to soldiers in the U.S. Army's 192d Infantry Brigade at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga. As members of a service profession, they are conditioned to care for anyone in need of assistance.

They didn't hesitate to go to Tuscaloosa, even after having arisen at 2 a.m. and working their usual pre-sunrise shifts at Fort Benning.

"Truthfully, it never occurred to me not to go and help others," said Pizzi, a Galena, Ohio, native. "The nature of our job puts us in situations where we need to act fast, be in control and calm people down."

Pizzi, Burroughs and Strube spent last Thursday working at a community center-turned-Red Cross shelter. Hickey joined the group on Sunday in helping set up a medical clinic in a command center established in a shopping center parking lot, just off the corridor of destruction on University Boulevard.

While the students volunteered their triage and medical skills, most of their first volunteer shift consisted of providing emotional comfort to the distraught, of displaying the "human touch" outlined in The Auburn Creed. They organized clothing for distribution, helped storm victims obtain supplies and played with children looking for a momentary escape.

On their return trip, the students performed a variety of tasks, monitoring blood pressure, dressing wounds, treating concussions and providing tetanus shots.

"I know I'm not an ER physician, or a trauma nurse, surgeon or paramedic," said Hickey, a Green Bay, Wisc., native. "But I felt that if we could at least take smaller cases off of their hands, we would be making it easier on them."

They walked through ravaged neighborhoods on Sunday, checking on residents engaged in the long clean-up process, and witnessed uplifting scenes that were in stark contrast to their barren backdrop.
"The most powerful things we saw were in the people," Burroughs said.

"Beside the obvious disbelief that a 30-second tornado could produce, I was moved by how upbeat the residents were," added Pizzi. "Children were smiling and laughing as they were climbing over the fallen trees. Families were sitting outside with smiles on their faces because they had survived. Everyone was so appreciative of the simple act of asking how they were, and so many people came together to help."

The outpouring continues, from Auburn University's own relief efforts to the Toomer's for Tuscaloosa Facebook group. Based on what the Auburn students experienced, the residents of Tuscaloosa are resilient and full of resolve.

"At times, you lost sight of who was there helping and who was from there, because so many people from there were helping each other," Hickey said.

It is the sort of ethos that guides Burroughs, Hickey, Pizzi, Strube and their colleagues on a daily basis.

"We live to help people," Burroughs said. "It's exactly who we are."

Last Updated: May 5, 2011

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