Victims of the May Oklahoma tornado outbreak were on the receiving end of her dedication. So were families of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Victims of structure fires also benefited.
Debra Williams, of Edmond, is one of four American Red Cross volunteer nurses selected by the International Committee of the Red Cross to receive the Florence Nightingale Medal, nursing’s highest international honor.
In addition to Williams, volunteer nurses from Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Georgia received the award. Every two years, the committee honors nurses and volunteer aides who have distinguished themselves by exceptional courage and devotion to the victims of armed conflict or natural disaster, and exemplary service or a creative and pioneering spirit in the areas of public health or nursing education.
“I’m really honored,” Williams said. “It’s been a privilege to volunteer with the Red Cross and to use my skills in a community setting.”
Williams has been a Red Cross volunteer all of her adult life. She offered unique insight into an aspect of human nature.
“People who are disaster survivors are very resilient,” she said. “If you give them immediate emergency support they really take off. It’s nice to be a part of that.”
On May 24, after powerful tornadoes damaged homes and businesses in a half-dozen counties in central Oklahoma, Williams responded, working as a Red Cross disaster health services manager.
Under her leadership, victims received things such as medicine and eyeglasses, and help with finding missing loved ones and with various mental health issues. The Red Cross assisted 13 families of tornado victims and there were other cases as well, Williams said. Those who receive help often inspire her, she said.
“People want to bless you,” she said. “We need to be open to the blessings of others.”
Williams lived in Delaware on Sept. 11, 2001. That evening, she sent email to the local Red Cross chapter explaining her nursing experience and her training as a mental health nurse, and her desire to go to New York City to help.
Instead, Williams was asked to train Delaware health professionals who then deployed to ground zero. She also was assigned to manage Red Cross integrated care teams that visited the 200 Delaware families directly affected by the attacks. Many people who work in New York live in that area, Williams said.
“It was very hectic,” she said. “The whole situation was very sad.”
When Williams was 16 years old, she became seriously ill and received care from some “very good nurses.” That experience led to a decision that would direct her life and impact the lives of countless others.
“I just thought that was something I wanted to do,” she said. “They were very compassionate, caring. They worked with me.”
When she was a student nurse, someone came to one of her classes and taught about disaster nursing. Her early experiences as a volunteer nurse were centered on helping victims of single family structure fires. She cared for people who had lost family members or pets.
Williams said she has received valuable support from her family, especially her husband David Williams who manages their home and takes care of her often. He said he gets to go on trips with Debra, who has been recognized multiple times by the American Red Cross.
“I’m just proud of her, she’s very motivated, very independent and liberal thinking,” he said.
The Red Cross is not a government agency and it relies on donations from the public, Williams said.
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