OHSU responds: In the wake of a "superstorm"

team photo-article

February 14, 2013

OHSU faculty, clinicians provide relief after Hurricane Sandy

In late October 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeastern U.S. Damage was extensive and was compounded by severe winter weather immediately following the hurricane. Relief workers from across the country began offering assistance to people recovering from the storm. A cadre of OHSU responders was part of this effort. The following SoM faculty and OHSU Healthcare clinicians went to New York on a two-week mission in November as members of the Department of Health and Human Services Disaster Medical Assistance Team (OR2-DMAT):

  • Robert Cloutier, M.D., M.C.R., associate professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics
  • Jonathan Jui, M.D., professor of emergency medicine
  • Katrina Lipnyagova, respiratory care practitioner, OHSU Respiratory Care
  • Helen Miller, M.D., adjunct associate professor of emergency medicine
  • Terri Schmidt, M.D., adjunct professor of emergency medicine; associate director, OHSU Center for Ethics in Health Care
  • Scott Sherry, M.S., PA-C, senior instructor of surgery
  • Helen Thomas, emergency department technician, OHSU Emergency Department

Below are the first-hand reflections of the experience from several of the OHSU responders. KGW also featured Drs. Jui and Schmidt in this story

Dr. Cloutier:

"Superstorm Sandy was my second deployment with OR-2. The one thing that always stands out on deployment is the simplicity of what we do. It is not glamorous work and is much more about just 'being there' for little things like two stiches or refilling blood pressure medications. It's like four parts listening to one part medical care because everyone has a story and they need to come out. Their stories often reflect their sadness but can also highlight their perseverance and resilience in the face of trying circumstances; and every once in a while there are stories of harrowing moments laced with laughter to remind you that when things are at their worst some can still find a way to squeeze in some humor. The 'thank you's' are heart felt and the people you work personify excellence; both these things will always be the reason I try to answer phone calls asking me to deploy by saying 'I'm a go.'"

Dr. Jui:

"My most memorable moment was the outreach mission to the Coney Island and Rockaway neighborhoods. During this mission, we were able to see the destruction to the residents and the neighborhoods by Superstorm Sandy. Having deployed to multiple disasters including Hurricane Katrina, the extent and severity of the destruction was similar to what I observed in Hurricane Katrina. Specifically, the vast majority of these individuals were families with newborns or school age children. Some houses had electricity and a small number had limited heat with space heaters or kerosene heaters.

When we made entry into a number of residences however, we were truly amazed by the resiliency and the positive attitude of the families in these residences.

Our team examined a seven year old male with hx of asthma who ran out of his medications. While not in acute distress, he clearly had increasing difficulty breathing. We were able to refill his medications and reassure mom on his general condition.

We visited another residence with two individuals, one of whom was a diabetic and hypertensive. She was out of her insulin and her diabetic medications. We performed our assessment and refilled her prescription (which she filled at the neighborhood pharmacy one block away). Her husband also had a painful shoulder from a previous injury and was concerned that he reinjured his shoulder during the storm.

Finally, we visited a residence where the entire house from the inside was "gutted from the inside" to remove the mild and mold buildup from the storm. It was approximately 40 degrees outside and probable 45 degrees inside the house with the wind penetrating the walls. The entire family was living in the house (upstairs) and we examined the 10 year old who also was asthmatic and out of his medications.

While the acuity of these patients was not the normal "ED high acuity patient" we were used to caring for, the situation of a disaster, lack of mobility or shelter, lack of access to medical care and underlying medical condition made the impact of our visit important to the family. They were extremely grateful for our assistance."

Katrina Lipnyagova:

"This was my first trip with DMAT so everything was pretty new for me, and I was nervous, but I was thankful that a lot of people I knew were there. Before leaving, I was a little worried because it was the holiday season and staffing at OHSU Hospital was already tough, but my supervisor was so cheerful and her message was just, 'don't worry, we're so glad you're going.'

When we got there, I was expecting a lot of critical needs and a lot of sick people. Yet, people were often there just to talk and they just wanted people to listen to them. It was amazing to see how they were trying to recover, and witness their positive attitude, they were so thankful.

One experience that stands out was in the last week when we accompanied the National Guard and knocked on people's doors to see if people needed medical attention or prescriptions. We were talking to a woman and we asked why she was sitting outside. She said, 'It's colder inside the house than outside.' A lot of people still didn't have power. Her medications were lost and she was very thankful for the services we provided. It was amazing. I was happy to help even though I didn't do what I usually do in the hospital." 

Dr. Schmidt:

"I am always amazed at the kindness of responders and our willingness to go the extra mile and do the little things that matter. One day an elderly man came into the tent hospital because he was 'having a little trouble breathing and he had a sore on his foot.' As soon as I started talking to him it was clear that these were not his biggest concerns. He reported that he almost never goes to doctors and that he was feeling anxious being here; he didn't want to bother us and was in a hurry to go. With a little questioning I learned that the 'real issue' was that about a month before the storm he had to admit his wife to a nursing home because of Parkinson's disease and dementia and he was now very stressed and sad because she had been evacuated to a shelter where she was living and sleeping in a gymnasium on a cot with 50 other people. He had a hard time traveling the distance to the shelter to see her and when he did see her, it upset him. Just being able to tell his story made him feel better.

I asked him to take off his shoes so I could see the sore on his foot. He responded, 'I am sorry my toenails are too long, I cannot bend down to clip them.' The nurses then proceeded to prepare a basin of warm water (in a tent without running water), soak his feet, find clippers from somewhere, trim his nails and massage lotion onto his feet. The sore itself was a minor blister, and his 'trouble breathing' was actually a mild cold plus his fear about his wife. But he left smiling and grateful because he got what he really needed, someone to hear his story and the kindness of DMAT staff in finding a way to take care of his toenails and say with actions, 'we care about you.'" 

Scott Sherry:

"Being part of the [DMAT] team was very positive and collegiality was very high. For me, the most memorable experience was going to Nassau County [Long Island, New York] and South Nassau Hospital. I was struck by the extent of the damages that were still there – it caught me off-guard. Cars were askew and filled with sand. People were taking piles and piles of debris out of their homes because of the mold.

These were just regular people doing the best they could. I think the community was doing well – they were not OK, but they were taking care of each other. They were trying to rebuild their lives. I helped people move furniture. I got to see my friend Brad, who was distraught but well spared. The strength of people in adverse situations is really impressive. [We were there] to help them, but in most situations they help you more. They taught me a lot about dealing with adverse situations.

I also want to say how much I appreciate my OHSU supervisors who supported my participation in this mission."

outside view of tent 2 article