Katrina: Children's mobilizes
How do you prepare for a natural disaster? Do you board up your windows? Stockpile canned goods from the local supermarket? Even abandon your home? In an ideal world, sure, you do all of these things and probably more. But the reality is that a natural disaster is something you can never truly prepare for.
Just ask the Children's Hospital Boston clinicians who often make trips to disaster-stricken areas around the world to provide medical aid.
"When you've seen one disaster, you've seen one disaster," says Gary Fleisher, MD, Children's pediatrician-in-chief and a member of the hospital's national disaster team.
"But at least you've seen one," adds Mark Waltzman, MD, a physician in Emergency Medicine, and a disaster team member.
When Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast in late August, Children's Pediatric Specialty Team (PST-1)—part of the National Disaster Medical System—was one of the first on the scene. The team deployed in two separate groups. First, Fleisher and Emergency Medicine pharmacist Shannon Manzi, PharmD, headed down to Mississippi on Saturday, August 27, two days before Katrina hit.
They arrived in Hattiesburg, Miss., and began setting up a field hospital and pharmacy at Forrest General Hospital, which had lost its power and water supply. "We saw about 150 patients that first day, about one-third of them kids," says Fleisher. "We did a lot of wound care and gave hundreds of tetanus shots."
After the first 36 hours, Fleisher and Manzi were transferred to Biloxi, Miss., a coastal area that suffered tremendous flood damage. Working out of Keesler Air Force Base, they treated patients of all ages, many of whom suffered lower-extremity infections from wading through contaminated water. "I was a pharmacist first, but I quickly became a social worker," says Manzi. "The second a patient heard your accent or saw ĺ─˛Massachusetts' on your shirt, they felt compelled to tell you their story. It was really difficult to hear, but of course, I wanted to help in any way I could."
"I felt so honored to be there and helping people," she adds. "Their resiliency was incredible and the overall experience was just amazing."
Meanwhile, the second half of the Children's PST-1—Waltzman, Emergency Medicine physician Debra Weiner, MD, Emergency Medicine clinical nurse specialist Michele Morin, MSN, and Emergency Medicine nurse Anne Meginnis, RN—were deployed to Louisiana on Sunday, September 3.
They arrived in Baton Rouge at Louisiana State University's campus, which had been converted into an evacuation center. "Things were already fairly under control by the time we got there," says Waltzman. "So while we were waiting to provide medical care, we helped write some federal policies on how to properly screen health care workers when they leave a disaster site."
The team soon moved to West Jefferson Medical Center in Jefferson Parish, where they helped with the vaccination program, providing tetanus/diptheria and hepatitis vaccinations as well as routine childhood immunizations. "We delivered about 1,250 vaccines that first day and saw about 250 medical patients," says Waltzman. "It really puts everything into perspective. You just feel so grateful for everything you have in your life."
For some members of Children's PST-1, this was their first "true" deployment, having only been through trainings and local events, such as the Democratic National Convention and the Boston Marathon. For others, this was one of many disasters they had witnessed in their tenure with the team.
"While every experience is different, the common thread is that you adapt your medical skills to an austere environment," says Fleisher, who has been a member of PST-1 since 1984.
For Waltzman, his five PST-1 experiences have made him think more about disaster preparedness in general. "After being deployed to New York during 9/11, I truly realized that the only way you get real, valuable experience is to go to a disaster."