Fulbright Specialist Stories | Kristi L. Koenig

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Kristi L. Koenig

Professor and Director, University of California--Irvine
Discipline: Public/Global Health
Host Institution: University of Eastern Piedmont Amedeo Avogadro, Italy
Academic Year: May-June, 2012


Angel, Angel, where art thou?
My knowledge sharing adventure in Italy


Photo 1 - Fake monitors at drill

I had the honor of being selected as a Fulbright Specialist in Public/Global Health, and traveled to the University of Eastern Piedmont Amedeo Avogadro in Novara, Italy from 17 May to 2 June 2012. One of the highlights of my visit was a full scale, live disaster drill on 31 May from 8 to 11 p.m. This brings us to the title of the article.

Twenty nine students from all over the world participated in the residential course of the European Master of Disaster Medicine (EMDM: www.dismedmaster.com), where I served as a specialist in Public Health.  The official language of the education and training was English, so there was a language barrier our mock disaster involved other local Italians not involved with the program. Our simulated disaster was a mock bomb explosion at the soccer stadium with multiple casualties.  Italian nationals who participated in the disaster drill – a mock bomb explosion at the soccer stadium with multiple casualties – included the civil defense, firefighters, police, doctors, nurses, medical students, Italian Red Cross, the media, and civilian volunteers. The mayor of Novara also took part in the drill.

The drill organizers decided to designate select medical students with English skills as “angels,” to provide translation to participants who didn’t speak English well.. It was common to hear an English speaking doctor yell, “angel, come here.” The student “angel” would run to the doctor’s side and simultaneously translate the instructions given by the doctor to manage the casualties.


Photo 2 - Realistic drill outside the stadium

This was the most realistic drill I have ever seen. The Italian Red Cross transformed the participating medical students to look like victims (photo 2). These students were trained prior to the exercise and were considered “intelligent victims.” They each carried a script and acted out specific medical conditions, getting better or worse depending on what mock treatment they received. Some were psychological casualties who would do things like yell and scream if they saw a friend injured or killed. The participants were excellent actors.

During my time in Italy, we also had two real earthquakes. One of them occurred at 4 a.m. on 27 May, just a few hours after I had done an interview with a local news reporter from La Stampa and warned her that Italy was at risk for earthquakes. Some of the EMDM students evacuated the hotel where we were staying and asked the professors whether this earthquake was a part of their training.

When a second quaked occurred a few days later, several hospitals had to be evacuated, sowe sent some medical students to assist in the process. We also supplied life-saving equipment to the rescue efforts. This also meant that we had fewer resources to carry out our drill, so we had to improvise. For example, we used color photocopies of monitors pasted onto cardboard boxes to simulate the computer screens (photo 1). One challenge occurred when the communications equipment we had intended to use was moved to the real disaster, and we had to use a more powerful system. Emergency managers in nearby Bergamo heard about a, “major explosion in the stadium in Novara” and alerted the authorities in Rome, thinking it was an actual event. We quickly reassured them that it was a drill.


Photo 3 - Doctors and nurses

The area around Novaro is known for culinary delicacies such as olive oil and gorgonzola cheese. We had wonderful local Italian cuisine throughout the visit. We had an opening reception at the local cooking school which gave the students their first opportunity to cook and serve for a large group.  But unfortunately, as a result of the earthquake, large amounts of parmesan cheese were destroyed, counted among the economic losses of the natural disaster.

In addition to teaching in the EMDM course, I gave several lectures at the University (photo 3). I am now back home at the University of California, Irvine and grateful for the wonderful opportunity provided by the Fulbright Commission. I encourage others to apply for this program and those who have participated to share their experiences.