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Nursing Students Volunteer as County Disaster Relief Workers

Titans Assist With Medical Supply Distribution, Research, Health Screenings
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For the last eight years, Cal State Fullerton nursing students have participated in a countywide Point of Dispensing drill to prepare emergency responses for possible bioterrorist attacks, natural disasters and yes, pandemics.

When the novel coronavirus began to spread, Maria Matza, associate professor of nursing, reached out to the OC Health Care Agency’s Agency Operations Center to see if nursing students could be of assistance.

Less than a day later, the response was a resounding yes.

Matza, along with assistant professor Deanna Jung and clinical placement coordinator Marisa Sherb, swiftly worked to get the students sworn in as county disaster relief workers.

Seven students are rotating service in the AOC, helping with such tasks as fulfilling medical supply requests from Orange County health care facilities, researching statewide emergency preparedness plans and assisting with health screenings for agency staff.

“The operation is ongoing, requiring 24-seven coverage,” says Jung, who has been taking turns with other faculty members to supervise the students. “A disaster doesn’t stop — it’s constant.”

Still, Jung says “the students are rip-roaring ready to go. They want to help, they’re eager and they’re called to this profession.”

Inside OC’s Agency Operations Center

Like many CSUF nursing students, Courtney Van Buren was disappointed when her hospital clinical rotations were canceled amid the COVID-19 outbreak both for safety reasons and to preserve personal protective equipment for frontline staff.

“I couldn’t help but think that if this pandemic had happened six months from now, my peers and I would have been licensed nurses working tirelessly to protect our communities,” she says. “I just felt really helpless.”

When the opportunity to serve in the AOC arose, Van Buren immediately signed up.

“The students are helping to ensure that hospitals and health care providers have access to the N95 masks, surgical masks, gowns, face shields and gloves they need to care for patients affected by COVID-19,” explains Michael De Laby, assistant director of emergency medical services for the OC Health Care Agency. “Students are also contributing to evidence-based decision making and ensuring the health and well-being of agency personnel.”

Van Buren, who has served more than 30 hours in the AOC to date, received her bachelor’s degree in health science from CSUF in 2018 and anticipates graduating this spring with a second bachelor’s degree, this time in nursing.

“COVID-19 has shown me the risks that I must be prepared to accept when I become a registered nurse,” she says. “I would be lying if I said that this pandemic does not scare me, but I would not change my decision to become a nurse — nothing gives me the sense of fulfillment that I get when I am caring for patients.”

Health Care Leaders of the Future

Nursing student Alex Aboutalebi has volunteered more than 20 hours to date at the AOC, eager for “the opportunity to gain knowledge about the health care system, especially in an emergent situation such as this.”

In addition to helping with medical supply distribution, Aboutalebi has been shadowing the head of the logistics department, who oversees order requests, news updates, media coverage and minute-by-minute updates from the Department of Public Health.

“Being inside of a hospital only gives nursing students a small lens to learn about health care,” he says. “The AOC has allowed me to see the big picture of what I am capable of doing with my nursing background.”

Aboutalebi is slated to graduate this spring and is working toward becoming a trauma nurse in a level 1 trauma center. “I signed up to fight for the greater good, and what better way to do that than be on the front lines helping people stay alive?”

De Laby believes the experience Cal State Fullerton students gain from volunteering at the AOC during the COVID-19 crisis will help them become the health care leaders of the future.

“It is a rare opportunity to be integrated into a public health pandemic emergency response. These students are receiving actual hands-on experience on what it takes to coordinate and respond to health emergencies that affect an entire system.

“It has been a pleasure to work alongside Cal State Fullerton students,” he adds. “Not only have they exhibited the highest levels of professionalism and commitment, they have contributed to the successful operations of our team.”

Contact: Lynn Juliano,