Metro-East Living

Retired nurse travels to ground zero to lend a hand

Al Boucher travels to interesting places all over the country, but it’s always at the worst possible times.

He went to Joplin, Mo., during tornado season; Galveston, Texas, during hurricane season; Nashville, Tenn., during flood season; and Denver, Colo., during wildfire season.

“I’ve never feared for my life,” said Al, 77, of Fairview Heights. “Every time you go to an unstable area, there’s an element of danger, but you get used to it. You don’t think much about it. I did three tours in Vietnam, and it was a little more serious over there.”

Al is a retired nurse who volunteers for the American Red Cross, helping victims of natural disasters.

His last deployment was on the East Coast after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. But now that he’s recovered from a hip replacement, he’s ready to hit the road again.

“It’s just a feeling that someone needs help, and I have some skills that can help them,” said Al, a balding man with wire-rimmed glasses and a Fu Manchu mustache who stands at 5-foot-5.

“As rough as it is to see the disasters, when you feel like you’re doing something for the victims, that’s pay in itself.”

When Al isn’t being deployed, he volunteers with the Red Cross on a local level.

The organization’s Eastern Missouri Region, based in St. Louis, responds to an average three house fires a day. Al helps survivors get replacements for lost medicine and medical equipment.

“He is one of the most calm, compassionate people,” said Disaster Program Manager Becky White, 38, who sometimes has to call him in the middle of the night if a fire occurs. “He just makes you feel comfortable.”

Al has two grown children, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild. His wife, Brenda, died of breast cancer in 2006.

It didn't surprise Al’s son, Bob Boucher, or daughter, Dawn Stosberg-Reay, when he started traveling to disaster sites.

“He’s always been an adventurer,” said Dawn, 43, of Caseyville. “Every time he finished one thing, he was ready to start something else.”

Al spent 20 years in the Air Force, living in Vietnam, Korea, Japan and The Philippines before moving to the metro-east and working as an air-traffic controller at Scott Air Force Base.

Then came Career No. 2. Al earned a nursing degree and worked 30 years as a nurse, mostly in trauma centers in St. Louis area, Arizona and Florida.

“This was at a time when we had such as shortage or nurses that if you had any background at all, you were hired on the spot,” he said.

About 15 years ago, Al signed up with the St. Clair County Medical Reserve Corps, a group of doctors and nurses trained to respond in local emergencies.

He started volunteering with the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Thousands of displaced New Orleans residents sought shelter in the St. Louis area.

“We helped to place clients with doctors and pharmacists, that sort of thing,” Al said. “But we only had 15 minutes per family, so we couldn’t do much.”

Al was first deployed in 2008 after Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast.

He and other volunteers were housed in a church gymnasium built to withstand hurricanes, which proved useful when they had to hunker down for Hurricane Ike.

“We could look out the window and see things blowing away,” Al said. “In fact, my rental vehicle wasn’t in the same spot where I parked it. It got moved over a few feet. The winds were that strong.”

Al also has worked for the Red Cross in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Florida, Texas, Colorado, North Dakota, New York, Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri and Southern Illinois.

He considers flooding the worst type of disaster because it happens quickly with little warning and it can take weeks or months for water to recede.

“(Al has) deployed 25 times,” Becky said. “That is a ton, and it doesn’t include all the local stuff. You figure each of those assignments is an average 18 days, so in the past few years, he has been deployed for more than 400 days.”

Members of the American Red Cross Disaster Services Workforce get 24 hours to prepare for deployments. Al packs clothes, toiletries, a stethoscope, blood-pressure cuffs, dressings, over-the-counter medications and other supplies that come in handy.

The organization pays for transportation, food and lodging. Volunteers never know where they’re going to stay.

“I’ve slept in the backseat of a car, on picnic benches,” Al said. “In Colorado, I was at an Anheuser-Busch horse farm. The showers were in a barn. I’ve been some places where they didn’t even have showers.

“In New York City, I slept in a five-star hotel suite, but that’s a little more rare than a shelter. I called the front desk and said, ‘Are you sure I’m in the right room? I’m Red Cross.’”

On disaster site, Al performs duties appropriate for nurses, checking the health status of disaster victims, treating wounds, starting IVs and making referrals to emergency rooms or clinics.

He has enjoyed getting to know volunteers from all over the country. While in Denver, friends threw him a 75th birthday party.

“You get a lot of hugs from both the victims and the other staff members,” Al said. “We don’t pat ourselves on the back very often, but we try to help each other feel good about what we’re doing.”

Volunteers wear Red Cross vests in the field. They often remove them while eating in restaurants to keep people from asking to buy their meals.

Al never takes photos of flattened houses or other destruction because he wants to build trust among local residents who are upset, injured or homeless and not look like a tourist.

“He’s just got a big heart,” his daughter said. “He likes to help people.”