Recent nurse grad volunteered at disasters

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Inspiring good works: Nurse Mary Otting (from left), who earned a master's degree from Lewis University, speaks about her experiences volunteering after Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haitii to Lewis student nurses, Allysha Jones and Mary Kitchin at the new Oak Brook Lewis University campus. | Mary Compton ~ For Sun-Times Media

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It took Mary Otting almost 20 years to enroll in school for her bachelor’s degree in nursing and another seven to finish the program. Why? She was too busy working as a nurse.

The Chicago resident, who previously had a nursing certificate, said she went back to school to keep up with the changing expectations in her field, and specifically at her workplace, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, where she is the EMS coordinator.

Otting, who graduated in December from Lewis University in Romeoville, had always promised herself she’d get her degree, but she put it off for two reasons:

First, she’s always been on the go. She was a traveling nurse for many years, changing jobs every three months; now, she’s active with National Disaster Medical System, responding to natural disasters inside and outside the U.S.

Second, it took a long time to find an institution that would be flexible with her schedule and count her work experience and certificate studies toward her bachelor’s degree. In Lewis, she found both things.

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Although she had vast work experience, the 48-year-old Otting said she learned a lot not only from her classes but from her classmates. Drug science and treatment philosophy has changed since she began her career, and general electives such as writing courses helped her sharpen skills she hadn’t used in a while. Going to class was convenient as well — Otting took most of her classes at satellite campuses and even took a few general electives online.

“You don’t always need to be in a classroom,” she said.

She does find some time to be in the classroom since graduating, teaching at Lurie Children’s Hospital.

Relief service

Indeed, Otting has learned outside the classroom throughout her whole career. As a disaster relief worker, she’s often sent away for days or weeks at a time, with very short notice. She has been on site after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ivan and Dennis and traveled to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

National Disaster Medical System is a federally coordinated program through which state and local authorities can receive help after a disaster. Doing service in the program works somewhat like that of National Guard members, Otting explained. Initially, it’s a volunteer commitment, but she does get paid for her time away. It can be a stressful way to live, but Otting has good help around her.

“When I leave, my sister takes care of (house-sitting),” she said.

After Katrina, she spent 17 days in Bay St. Louis, Miss., where the medical center had been hit by a water surge. Otting and her fellow responders set up a full medical center in a parking lot.

“We were the first team on the ground there,” she said.

She usually works with the same team of people, who each have their own area of expertise, but at times it’s all hands on deck to get things done.

“Patient care is the first priority,” she said.

Once their work in Mississippi was complete, Otting had only four days at home before being dispatched again to respond to Hurricane Rita. She was gone 14 days.

Each disaster experience is different. During the earthquake in Haiti, for example, Otting dealt with many crush injuries and babies being born. She also endured several aftershocks. While she was away for Katrina, she rode out the storm in Memphis, where windows of her hotel were knocked out by the high winds.

Common to each experience, however, is the appreciation of the people she’s helping.

“Your faith in humanity is renewed,” she said. “You really feel like you make a difference.”

Otting feels more appreciative as well. An avid traveler, she spends much of her time seeing the world. Recently, she went on an African safari. With each trip, whether for business or pleasure, she returns home very grateful for the medical care available to her and for the facilities at Lurie Children’s. Still, she loves the work and feels it’s important to share her gift of caring for people.