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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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Letter to the Editor - Hurricane Relief Efforts by Houston Community

September 12, 2005

Beginning Wednesday, August 31, 2005 through Sunday, September 4, 2005, the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center operated a Patient Reception Team at Ellington Field to receive patients being evacuated from the Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans. The first military transport flight arrived that day at 9 p.m. and by the end of our mission, we had received 21 planes with more than 700 patients. The patients ranged in age from four months to over 80-years-old. Their conditions ranged from fatigue and dehydration to a transplant patient.

This was an event we had planned for and drilled over the last four years. That planning and practice paid off as reported by a pilot of the first National Guard C-130 medavacing patients out of New Orleans, "We arrived there [in Houston] and were met by what can only be described as an eye watering reception. We called the field 20 minutes out and let them know we would be landing shortly and passed on our patient information. Well, let me tell you something. As we taxied in, I looked towards our parking spot and I must have counted 30 ambulances and a line of hospital workers and volunteers with wheelchairs at the ready, lined up 50 deep. There was another equally long line of paramedics with gurneys. These people had it together. We shut down engines and then watched as Ellington's smooth operation kicked into gear. The sickest of the sick were rushed to hospitals. Everyone else was given food, cold drinks, seen by a social worker, doctor, and other specialists."

The outstanding success of the operation would not have been possible without the support of many individuals and organizations outside of the VA who were supportive, tireless, and resourceful in their response. Any attempt to list everyone who contributed will undoubtedly omit someone, and for that, I will apologize in advance.

The leadership of the City of Houston and Harris County was critical to setting the tone for all of us who were involved. The Houston Emergency Operations Center was professional, efficient, and always there. All of the organizations that reside at Ellington Field were fully engaged from the tower operations to the Texas Air National Guard 147th Fighter Wing crews. NASA opened their hangar as we had drilled, but then brought out support that was amazing. The NASA family began to bring clothes, toys, and other essential needs to comfort so many who came off the planes with nothing.

Area ambulance companies, along with Houston Fire Department and EMS crews, were quickly available and their support was a welcome sight for flight crews and invaluable to our clinical triage teams. Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County supplied buses to assist with the movement of those who did not require ambulance transport. Since there were several additional planes full of evacuees, they were right there to assist on trips to shelters all over the Greater Houston-area.

None of the efforts at Ellington Field would have worked without hospitals in the entire region stepping up to accept patients. Just as critical was their commitment to continually report bed availability information to ensure the flow of patients could be managed. Hospital CEOs from small community hospitals to the largest academic centers participated and their commitment to their great rescue mission is commendable. In addition, we had physicians and nurses who made themselves available to supplement the VA teams. This volunteerism was particularly important with the arrival of pediatricians from Bayshore Hospital and Texas Children’s Hospital accompanied by specialty nurses and pediatric equipment.

We had volunteers from the Texas State Guard, a Civil Air Patrol crew, and many other who helped push wheelchairs, clean equipment, and prepare for the next plane.

The mission at Ellington was a success. As we closed that operation, there were many tears. The tears I believe for the suffering we had witnessed and the knowledge that there is still much to be done. But the skill, professionalism, and heart demonstrated at Ellington is the same that the world is seeing in the news and should give us all the certain knowledge that Houston is the greatest city in America.

To the VA staff of the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center and all who stepped up to assist us – Thank you!

Edgar L. Tucker
Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center