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Behind the Scenes at Pope Weekend

September 30, 2015

Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia was the largest event ever undertaken by the United States Secret Service and a rousing success, according to Mayor Michael Nutter.

Volunteering for the American Red Cross, one Drexel student played a particular role in that success.

“I have to say that the Secret Service, the cops, the EMS and the Red Cross disaster management teams were phenomenal,” said Renee Bollenbach, a 45-year-old online master’s of science in nursing student. “They all worked together and really worked to ensure safety.”

Bollenbach worked primarily out of First Aid Tent Three from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., which was located at 23rd and Market streets. They received crowds of “pilgrims” intending to head toward 30th Street Station. She arrived on-site Friday morning and didn’t leave until she was debriefed early Monday morning.

She lived on-site in one of the tents set up by the Red Cross, taking showers in temporary facilities. Wawa provided her food.

“I don’t think I can look at another Wawa,” she laughed.

On Friday, Bollenbach was able to attend the Mass Pope Francis delivered at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. She also visited the Knotted Grotto nearby, a prayer sanctuary that was set up so visitors could write prayer intentions on ribbons and tie them to the structure.

“I put in a ribbon for Drexel,” Bollenbach said.

Although Bollenbach was able to do some of the things that visitors for the papal visit were able to do, her participation obviously went far deeper.

Her job at First Aid Tent Three was to triage people coming in for attention. They handled anything from sore ankles and exhaustion to a cardiac arrest and Achilles tendon tears.

At one point, EMS units got so backed up that Bollenbach was re-assigned to help transport patients who couldn’t walk anymore using a Gator utility vehicle.

“There was a 7 year old coming off of [cancer] remission who collapsed,” Bollenbach. “Her mother refused any further medical service, so we were able to get her home on the Gator.”

The job ranged from crushes of people at peak times earlier in the night to slow times early in the morning.

Bollenbach felt her training at Drexel prepared her for the experience, especially a session taught by Fran Cornelius, PhD, in technology during a three-day practicum requirement. The volunteers actually were able to use Apps like Uber to help arrange for patients to get home.

“We coordinated using a lot of technologies, like I learned about in Dr. Cornelius’ class,” Bollenbach explained.

Overall, Bollenbach said she felt “a lot of support” when she let her Drexel contacts know she was being deployed by the Red Cross.

“I was afraid, but they supported me,” she said.

Although everything went well and there was great teamwork between all involved, Bollenbach recognized the safety issues that could have presented themselves throughout the weekend.

“What I’m coming away from this with is that it was a positive experience and we learned a lot about communication in the field and, of course, safety,” Bollenbach reflected.

With nine weeks left until she finishes her master’s degree, Bollenbach sees her experience during the papal visit as a launchpad for continuing her education even further.

“It was a great way to jump into my doctorate program, hopefully here at Drexel,” Bollenbach said.