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MPH Students: From Desks to De-Con

Colorado School of Public Health

MPH Students in University Hospital Decontamination Room

​Ebola is a hot topic in many of my public health classes.  There is nothing like a real-time infectious disease outbreak (of the hemorrhagic fever variety) to bring to life the often vague and misrepresented public health field.   Most public health curriculum is theory based, which is precisely why I signed up for a public health emergency preparedness course offered last summer at CU Anschutz. It sounded like an opportunity to engage in the activities we were leaning about.     

On the first day, the class was asked a question I had never before considered: “How many people have an emergency preparedness kit at home?”  

The class, centered on the emerging public health field of disaster management and emergency response and preparedness, is a subject area particularly conducive to an applied learning approach.   

Never a dull moment, Dr. Debra Kreisberg collaborated with a host of experts in the field of disaster management to provide a multi-disciplinary, “real-world” perspective to the field.  Over a six-week period the class covered Incident Command Systems, Counter Terrorism Tactics, HAZMAT training, and Epidemiologic Investigations. Patrick Conroy, University Hospital’s chief safety officer and incident commander, recalled the chilling response to the Dark Night shooting followed by crash course on incident command systems. Every class was an opportunity to network and ask pointed questions to professionals in the field of emergency preparedness.   

The highlight of the class was a more than timely HAZMAT training, held in University Hospital’s brand new Decontamination Room. The exercise was led by Dr. Charlie Little, director of emergency medicine, Patrick Conroy, and the University hospital HAZMAT team. Less than a year old and with little opportunity for use, it is the perfect hands-on classroom.  

“Hands on training is the best way to teach emergency Preparedness, especially to those students new the field.” 

A HAZMAT suit, short for “hazardous materials” is a highly specialized piece of personal protection equipment donned by first responders and other medical personnel, designed to protect against hazardous chemical, biological, or nuclear agents.  “Suiting up” is a rather technical four-part process involving several layers of duct-tape, and application of a self-contained breathing apparatus that prevents the person inside of the HAZMAT suite from suffocating.  

"Remove peripheral vision, hearing, dexterity, and oxygen…that’s what it feels like to be in a HAZMAT suit."

The CU Anschutz medical campus, a Disney Land for medical students and professionals is uniquely situated to offer unique educative experiences.  In addition to offering 26 MS/PhD programs in a variety of disciplines, students and educators have close access to Children’s Hospital Colorado, University of Colorado Hospital, and plans for a VA hospital.  

Four months after the HAZMAT training, in the wake of last year’s Ebola epidemic of historic proportions, images of health workers in West Africa donning HAZMAT suits were cast daily across television networks.  The timeliness of the exercise not only gave emerging public health students like myself an opportunity to imagine themselves working in the trenches of an infectious disease outbreak, but it brought to life the course material and the learning environment.   

This class was a great model of what graduate education can encompass. As I move through my own graduate career, I hope to see a shift from passive lecturing to a more hands-on, applied learning approach that takes full advantage of the tremendous medical facilities in our wake.  

My home emergency kit may not have a HAZMAT suit, but in the event of the unknown I am a little more prepared.

Story by Anne Kiser, MPH student at Colorado School of Public Health at CU Anschutz


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