AIM: The purpose of this qualitative study is to provide an understanding of how Chinese nurses acted in response to the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. BACKGROUND: The literature has reported that Chinese nurses played a key role in the Wenchuan earthquake. Although these nurses' intentions were well meaning, and they made enormous efforts to save lives, they considered that disaster relief practice was beyond the scope of normal daily nursing practice and found the challenges they confronted overwhelming. China is a country prone to both natural and man-made disasters that demand a good deal of preparedness for those involved in disaster nursing. However, few studies have been conducted to investigate the knowledge, skill, experience and attitudes required for nurses responding to disasters. METHODS: Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics was used as a framework to underpin and interpret the qualitative accounts of the practice of the ten registered nurses in this study. FINDINGS: Three themes were identified from semi-structured interviews with the participants. These are described as (1) feeling under-prepared; (2) perceived challenges and coping strategies; and (3) the rediscovery of the helping and caring role. By analysing these nurses' experiences in the Wenchuan earthquake relief operation, this study has identified the numerous roles and attributes required of nurses in response to disasters. CONCLUSION: Without education and training in disaster nursing, nurses may not be prepared to function in disaster relief, especially in a manner that is productive, efficient, collaborative and less stressful. Findings suggest that a systematic, educational approach to develop the skills required in disaster nursing is essential.
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