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The Medical Reserve Corps: Volunteers in Times of Crisis and Calm

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President Obama has called this Wednesday, September 11th, National Day of Service and Remembrance and he asks all of us across the country to volunteer. Despite recent challenging times, both domestically and internationally, 64.5 million Americans volunteered in 2012 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This represented 7.9 billion hours and translates to a value of $171 billion. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service the rate of volunteering has increased over the past several years in the United States.

One volunteer program, which began in the wake of September 11, 2001, was the nation's Medical Reserve Corps (MRC). Marshaling the energy and talent of our health professionals, the MRC galvanized American health workers to help during a crisis. With only ten pilot programs and several hundred volunteers in 2002, today's MRC tops 200,000 volunteers in close to 1000 programs and reaches over 90 percent of all Americans today.

Volunteers within the MRC develop protocols and networks during times of calm, which enable them to function smoothly during times of crisis. The MRC supports the Surgeon General's Public Health Service during natural disasters and flu pandemics. It also promotes programs including those combating childhood obesity and diabetes. They have sprung into action during floods, firestorms, heat waves and crippling snowstorms.

Working with nongovernmental organizations, local civic centers, town councils and regional hospitals, the MRC is a component of our nation's emergency management infrastructure. Thousands of MRC volunteers from communities across the nation responded to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and again to the Gulf oil spill in 2010. During last year's Hurricane Sandy and the previous year's Hurricane Irene, MRC teams provided first aid and worked with FEMA and the American Red Cross. In fact, Congress recognized the potential for proactive preparedness of this all-volunteer army of health professionals by incorporating the MRC into the 2006 Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness Act.

In times of crisis communities across this nation benefit from the dedicated service of the men and women of the Medical Reserve Corps. As local volunteers, they draw upon relationships with merchants, hospitals, and local government and can be deployed quickly and efficiently to reach those in need. With seasonal flu soon to be upon us, it is the MRC that can help with vaccination programs. Should a pandemic arise these volunteers will be essential to larger public health efforts.

As we reflect on one of our nation's saddest days, let us celebrate the good that was born out of the ashes of that national tragedy. The spirit of volunteerism flourished and the MRC is one example. Through this program, doctors, nurses, social workers, pharmacists and other medical professionals have contributed to health security in communities where they live and work.

Channeling community spirit into civic responsibility is at the heart of our National Day of Service and the President's United We Serve program. Let us applaud the hundreds of thousands of Medical Reserve Corps volunteers who have given selflessly for more than a decade to make our nation healthier, safer and stronger.

Howard A. Zucker, MD, JD is a pediatric cardiac anesthesiologist at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, served as Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Health and created the nation's Medical Reserve Corps in 2001.