‘Nurses in War’ coauthor Doherty receives research award at WCSU
Board of Regents cites nursing professor for study of nurses deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan

DANBURY, CONN. WCSU Associate Professor of Nursing Dr. Mary Ellen Doherty has received a Connecticut public university annual award recognizing exceptional research for her contributions in giving new voice and long-overdue attention to military nurses on the front line of critical medical care for service men and women injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Doherty has been named the WCSU recipient of the 2012 Board of Regents/Connecticut State University Norton Mezvinsky Research Award for her research “bringing to the forefront the experiences of understudied populations,” the award citation noted. Doherty is coauthor with her twin sister and research colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Scannell-Desch, of the recently published book, “Nurses in War: Voices from Iraq and Afghanistan,” which explores the experiences of U.S. military nurses during deployments in those war zones from 2003 to 2011.

A Ph.D. recipient from the University of Rhode Island and member of the WCSU nursing faculty since 2008, Doherty has conducted extensive research in the areas of childbearing and women’s health, and holds certifications as a nurse-midwife, family nurse-practitioner, and maternal-newborn clinical nurse specialist. Her research collaboration with Scannell-Desch, a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps and nursing professor at Adelphi University, began in 2007 with a study of the experiences of women who became widowed during pregnancy as a result of their spouses’ deaths in the 9/11 terror attacks as well as the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts.

“We then decided to study nurses at war, because you just did not find this subject discussed very much in media accounts of the experiences of our service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Doherty said. “It was uncharted territory.”

Her longstanding interest in women’s health topics complemented her sister’s professional experience as a retired military nurse and officer in approaching their joint research undertaking. “My interest in military nursing was sparked when I started having nursing students deployed to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with their National Guard units, and when graduating seniors knew that their first assignment would be Iraq or Afghanistan to fulfill their military obligations after college,” Doherty explained.

One of the first lessons that Doherty and Scannell-Desch drew from their interviews with nursing veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan deployments is that they confront traumatic experiences equally intense as those suffered by service men and women in action, and with little relief from the daily exposure to the results of battlefield violence. Nurses also told the researchers that they were not fully prepared for the direct danger to which they were sometimes exposed in the course of their medical duties, as in helicopter evacuations of the wounded from battlefield sites.

“The nurses faced the reality of violence and death day in and day out, because they were always receiving new casualties for treatment,” Doherty observed. “Whether they were stabilizing someone who had just been injured for hospital transfer, or preparing someone for medical evacuation to Germany, they never got away from this reality.

“One of the stories I will never forget is the nurse who told us about the day when three soldiers were brought into the emergency room. All of them had lost both legs within a few seconds” when an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated, she said. “Nurses also told us they were surprised at the number of children who required critical treatment,” innocent victims who had suffered burn or blast injuries from an IED, grenade attack or similar battlefield violence. A recurring remembrance shared by many nurses was the experience of struggling to maintain professional discipline in the face of the most chaotic circumstances for emergency care that any of them had ever faced.

The fact that nurses’ intense and continuous experience of war received significantly less attention than that of fighting troops during the early years of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts contributed to the inadequate initial response in diagnosis and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among nursing veterans following deployment, Doherty said. She noted that PTSD symptoms are now more widely recognized and medical support services have greatly improved for military nurses in recent years, thanks in part to the willingness of nursing veterans to talk openly about their experiences.

Nurses also recalled the everyday working and living conditions, security and hygiene concerns, and personal challenges of deployment in the Iraqi and Afghan war zones. They provided care for patients either in tent hospitals where temperatures could reach well over 120 degrees, or in a hospital facility formed from several linked trailers. Air Force nurses typically served on the large Medevac aircraft that transport the seriously injured to skilled-care hospitals in Europe and the United States.

Doherty and Scannell-Desch made frequent trips to locations throughout the eastern United States to conduct personal interviews with nursing veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones who had returned from deployment. For those military nurses at more distant sites, the researchers arranged extensive telephone interviews to complete each of the three major studies.

Doherty and her sister dedicated “Nurses in War,” released in April by Springer Publishing Co., to all U.S. military nurses and to their mother, Marie Murphy Scannell. Doherty expressed a special sense of responsibility in giving voice to the military nurses who have served and continue to serve in war zones overseas.

“In reading this book, we hope that readers will see, feel and get as close as they can to the experiences of these nurses in war,” she said. “This book is not about what two professors think that nurses may have been feeling at war — these are the words of the nurses who were there. The nurses tell their own stories.”

For more information, contact the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486.


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