When rising waters from a nearby creek, triggered by rainfall from Hurricane Harvey, began flooding the home of Texas Heart Institute (THI) cardiology fellow Dr. Robert Aertker, he worried about his two young children and pregnant wife, as well as his home and property. However, like many medical professionals, he was in no position to rush home and protect his family. He had previously signed up to work Saturday and Sunday nights at THI, and had already been there for almost 12 hours. Trapped at the facility by the weather, he became part of a “ride-out team” for the next day.
Advanced planning and ingenuity helped turn Aertker and his colleagues into some of the many heroes at Houston hospitals when Hurricane Harvey struck, along with other medical and hospital personnel who weathered the storm. Most were ready for the worst, having generators, scheduled ride-out teams, evacuation plans, and other preparations in place.
Major medical facilities in the region had prepared for this storm based on lessons learned from Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. Planning at Methodist Hospital in Houston was typical of almost every larger medical facility, where each department has ride-out teams, which as the name suggests, sustain and maintain operations until the storm is over. “During the storm, it becomes difficult for our staff to leave,” according to spokesperson Erik Noriega, Senior Editor at The Methodist Hospital System. “This is why our ride-out teams came to work that day with suitcases packed, prepared to stay through the entire event. Unlike most hurricanes, which pass over a city in a matter of hours, Hurricane Harvey wore out his welcome by hovering over the Houston area for four days — dumping up to 50 inches of rain in some areas.”
In the hours and days leading up to the storm, preparations across many departments were implemented. Supplies and equipment are typically moved to higher floors in case of flooding, and security is available because of possible looting.
However, patients remain the top priority. The medical staff of doctors, nurses, and technicians are usually divided into “A teams”, which are on duty when the storm hits, and “B teams”, which report to the hospital afterward. Sometimes, a B team is already on site and goes into action to relieve the A team when necessary. Staff members with disaster experience are especially valuable. At some hospitals, staff members are permitted to bring family members and even pets with them, since it increases the likelihood they will be able to report to work.
According to Matthew Berkheiser, Executive Director and Associate Vice President of Environmental Health Safety and Corporate Services, MD Anderson Cancer Center made agreements with private companies such as Lyft to bring in staff when possible as well as with a childcare company called Bright Horizons to care for employees’ children while at work. They also stationed contractors in nearby hotels, with trucks parked at the hospital, ready to begin repairs if needed.
During the multi-day Harvey event, “It was pretty much business as usual, although obviously, we were not staffed to capacity,” said Noriega. During the worst of the hurricane, he said, there were patients who had difficulties getting to Methodist Hospital because of street flooding, road closures, and downed trees and power lines. “Over the years, we have learned a lot of lessons to minimize the impact of storms on our operations.”
At Memorial Hermann, oncology nurses Casey Aslan and Morgan McCullough arrived to work by kayak, said Glenn Willey, Manager of Corporate Communications. Fortunately, the hospital did not have to evacuate, he said. “It was business as usual for us, as much as ‘business as usual’ was possible.”
Ben Taub Hospital, located in the Texas Medical Center, was preparing to evacuate some of its 350 patients, but could not do so because water levels rose too high. Many associates stayed to take care of patients, only to find their own homes flooded. Brian McLeod, Ben Taub public information officer, credits the facility’s engineering staff to help activate a pump system that alleviated the need to implement their full transfer plan. The needs of their medical professionals were met in part by out-of-state donations, including cleaning supplies, bottled water, hygiene items, clothes, and linens from colleagues at a hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Dr. Aertker said that his home received about 18 inches of water during the storm. He had left his pager with a friend and tried to drive home, but flooding quickly forced him to turn around. A neighbor on higher ground led his wife and three- and five-year-old children through waist-deep flood waters to safety.
“At the hospital, manpower was an issue, so they asked if I could cover one of the ICUs,” he said. “I did some echos, and thankfully, my workload was not that overwhelming. Some cath lab staff were able to get in and treat patients.”
“A couple of the attendings were the real warriors, and were there no matter what — one walked in through water up to his waist. Another doctor tried to drive in, but his car got stuck, so he just left it on a median and walked the remaining distance.” Once Dr. Aertker’s relief arrived and the waters sufficiently receded, he took back roads to his neighbor’s home, where his family was waiting.
Hurricane Harvey was one of the most catastrophic and costly natural disasters in U.S. history. From its first Texas landfall on August 25 until it finally dissipated on September 3, an estimated 25 trillion gallons of water fell on Houston alone. “It was a heck of an event,” Dr. Aertker remembered. “One doctor stayed for 72 hours and took a few naps. But given the circumstances, I think things ran very smoothly, including cafeteria operations. We never lost power, and nobody panicked. I was very impressed.”