Several Emory physicians provided aid to individuals injured during Hurricane Maria.
Emory School of Medicine’s Department of Emergency Medicine deployed eight faculty members and physicians to assist patients injured during Hurricane Maria, according to Sheryl Heron, vice chair of administrative affairs in the department. The patients were transported to Atlanta from the U.S. Virgin Islands for access to medical resources, she added.
The volunteers met the hurricane-battered patients as their planes landed at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Ga., Sept. 24, Heron said. They immediately began triaging patients by assessing their physical and mental conditions and determining the best method to transport some patients to hospitals to which they needed to go.
Most patients required dialysis to treat their kidneys, while other patients suffered from diabetes, hypertension and trauma, Chair of Emory’s Department of Emergency Medicine Katherine Heilpern said.
The volunteers treated 67 patients and 53 family members and caregivers who accompanied them, according to Heilpern. They were among the roughly 110 patients in St. Croix requiring transportation for dialysis treatment, Assistant Medical Director of Grady Memorial Center’s Emergency Care Hospital Brooks Moore said. Five patients who landed in Atlanta were immediately transported to Atlanta-area hospitals for care.
Hurricane Maria killed at least 16 people and is the most powerful hurricane and the first category 5 hurricane to hit Puerto Rico since 1928, according to The Washington Post. The hurricane caused extensive infrastructure damage to Puerto Rico and neighboring islands such as the Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic. The White House declared the Virgin Islands a disaster area to make federal funding available for residents, according to The New York Times.
Emory physicians evaluated the patients based on a brief physical exam, vital signs examinations of blood pressure, heart rate measurements performed by nurses and a blood sugar test for patients who had diabetes, according to Heilpern.
“Emergency medicine is kind of an impressionist art,” Heilpern said. “We see people in a moment in time and must make assessments with very little information and very compressed time.”
Patients with kidney failures rely on dialysis every few days to avoid accumulation of excess toxins, particularly potassium, which can cause abnormal and fatal heart rhythms, Moore said. Following Hurricane Maria, St. Croix lacked the power and infrastructure necessary to provide dialysis, so those patients were “considered high priority to get out of the danger zone as soon as possible,” Moore said.
Federal officials contacted Emory late on Sept. 23 to request volunteers, and Emory agreed to send some of its physicians. The relief efforts took place overnight, with the first aircraft landing shortly after 10 p.m. Sept. 24 and the third and final aircraft landing after 2 a.m. the following morning, Heilpern said. The planes were initially scheduled to arrive at 1:30 p.m. but were delayed due to infrastructure and communication issues caused by the hurricane.
Heilpern said it was a “quick” and “easy” decision to volunteer.
“One of the most important things we do in emergency medicine is just being there for our community in times of need,” Heilpern said.
Heron said that she volunteered because she felt it was her responsibility to help those in need when she can. Her husband is from St. Croix, so she also felt a personal connection to the cause.
“I was a bit nervous that I would be seeing family members or friends,” Heron said.
Emory’s Grady Memorial Hospital is a hub for patients who experienced mass casualty events because of its ability to be quickly “responsive, engaged and mobilized,” according to Heron. And Atlanta is a convenient location for relief efforts because of its proximity to a large airport and military base, Moore added.
Volunteers worked with other organizations on site, including the American Red Cross, the U.S. Public Health Service, U.S. Air Force personnel, Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center nurses and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Heilpern described the night as a “symphony” and a “team effort.”
Heron said that she first noticed her department’s commitment to humanitarian relief efforts when she responded to the 1996 Centennial Park bombing that killed two and injured at least 100 people shortly after she began working at Emory. Since then, she has seen Emory aid victims of many local and international disasters, including the Ebola epidemic.
Emory has treated hurricane victims in the past, Heilpern said. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, patients from the Louisiana coast arrived in Atlanta also in need of dialysis. Ebola patients from Africa were also transported to Emory for treatment in 2014, and the department sends faculty to international sites to assist those suffering from natural disasters.
“For physicians who have the knowledge and capacity to render care, it is our automatic instinct to respond, and our colleagues at Emory really speak to that,” Heron said. “I’ve been here for 21 years, and … with consistency, I see our colleagues rise up.”
Emory does a lot to prepare for disaster relief, according to Moore.
“Fortunately, we don’t have to see that in action too often, but when we do, it’s very satisfying and gratifying to see all that we’re capable of,” Moore said.
Other Emory volunteers included Grady Health System Chief of Emergency Medicine Hany Atallah, Medical Director of the Metro Atlanta Ambulance Service Julio Lairet, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine Kathleen O’Donnell, Professor of Emergency Medicine Tammie Quest and Medical Director of the Grady EMS Emergency Communications Center Arthur Yancey, according to a Sept. 26 Emory press release.