NOTE: An earlier version of this article appeared in AHN’s Network News.
Several Allegheny Health Network (AHN) employees put their lives on hold to aid in emergency responses to devastating natural disasters, including three hurricanes and an earthquake in Mexico.
Tim Rausch, chief nurse practitioner for Acute Care Surgery/Trauma, Allegheny General Hospital, was one of four AHN employees who responded to relief efforts in Texas after Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston and surrounding suburbs late August into early September.
“It was a very simple decision for me,” Rausch said. “My philosophy is, if my family was involved in some type of tragic event, I would hope someone would come and help us. It’s not convenient for your employer, or for the emergency responders, that you leave at the drop of a hat, but somebody’s got to do it.”
Rausch, along with Kate Jones Lambert, MPPM, NRP, pre-hospital care coordinator at West Penn Hospital, and Kevin J. Neely, RN, Trauma Surgical ICU at Allegheny General Hospital, were deployed to Dickinson, Texas, on August 24 through the Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT).
DMATs are groups of professional and para-professional medical personnel (MDs, nurses, paramedics, and other specialists) who are deployed by the federal government to provide medical care during natural disasters or other events. DMATs are coordinated by the National Disaster Medical System, a joint partnership of the Departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Defense, and Veterans Affairs.
Sort of like a National Guard for health care, DMATs are designed to be rapid-response health care teams that supplement — or in some cases replace — local medical care. They deploy to disasters in order to provide emergency medical care at a fixed or temporary medical care site, and can be activated for up to two weeks.
Rausch said local hospitals were inaccessible because of massive flooding in the wake of the hurricane, so his team was stationed in a high school gymnasium, where about 60 patients arrived each day over 10 days into a makeshift emergency department.
“We saw a lot of lacerations, dispensed a lot of tetanus shots, and saw a lot of wounds that needed repairs,” Rausch said. Some patients, including those suffering from heart ailments, were transferred to a Galveston hospital. Most, however, were treated and sent home with medication, or treated and advised to follow up with a family doctor.
Many of the cuts and other injuries were days old, Rausch added, with people unable to get treatment quickly because “they were trapped in houses for days because of flooding. They could not get anywhere.”
He noted that the team found itself in nicer conditions than members had in past deployments. “The town was very gracious to house us in the school,” he said. “It was nice to have a dry place to stay, and even nicer for the patients to have a facility that was air-conditioned, when it was 90 degrees outside with 100 percent humidity.” In many deployments, he explained, team members find themselves treating patients in tents, and using outhouses.
“Disaster relief always starts with the local people, and we’re there to help bridge the gap,” he added. “The locals are overwhelmed until they can get back on their feet, and many times, we’re relieving them so that they can take care of their families. They have their own lives to deal with as well.”
Kate Jones Lambert described the experience as transformative. “To me there is no greater purpose in this life than to serve others, especially during a time when they need it most,” she said. “I’m very thankful to have had the opportunity to be in Dickinson, and that community will always hold a special place in my heart. I think about them every day and the long road ahead of them rebuilding their community. When we serve others we often find that it ends up changing our own hearts for the better, and the people of Dickinson have certainly changed mine.”
Another AHN employee, Jonah Thompson, CP-C, operations manager, Mobile Integrated Health, deployed to Texas with Team Rubicon, a volunteer organization made up primarily of military veterans who specialize in disaster relief, clean-up and operational coordination. More than 2,000 Team Rubicon volunteers went to Houston after Hurricane Harvey.
While most Team Rubicon relief efforts involve post-disaster coordination, for Hurricane Harvey, many of the Rubicon team members engaged in active swift-water rescue efforts. Thompson and his rescue team started in Houston and ultimately ended up in the Beaumont area. He spent several days in the water, rescuing people as well as stranded pets, in addition to conducting search-and-clear missions and working on depth surveys to get a sense of the flooding in certain neighborhoods.
Thompson also deployed to Mexico City in the wake of the September 19 quake that killed more than 300 people. Within just a few days of arriving there, Team Rubicon members were redeployed in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands. Thompson helped with relief efforts on the island of Dominica.
Unfortunately, yet another natural disaster required aid during this same period: Hurricane Irma. Once again, AHN employees stepped up, including Jim Stupar, a training specialist with AHN who deployed to Florida to help with disaster response. While in Key West, Stupar helped staff a mobile field hospital to treat local residents. He said he was grateful that AHN is supportive of the efforts to respond to disasters when needed.
“While their actions don’t directly affect AHN customers or Highmark customers in western Pennsylvania, this group of employees epitomizes trusting working together — with each other, with fellow volunteers, with various government and military agencies, and others,” said Cynthia Hundorfean, president and CEO, AHN. “Employees who deployed for hurricane relief and rescue are leaders within our organization, and their service to their nation and to communities outside of western Pennsylvania serves as a great example to other employees and reflects well on the values and mission of AHN.”
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