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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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VA Shining Star in Disaster Relief Efforts

November 3, 2005

HOUSTON - On August 31, 2005, as the country realized the devastation Hurricane Katrina inflicted along the Gulf Coast, the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) was activated. In Houston, this meant area hospitals began gearing up to receive patients from the hurricane-affected areas under the coordination of the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center (MEDVAMC).

        That day, the MEDVAMC began moving supplies, equipment, and personnel to Ellington Field to establish a Patient Reception Team (PRT). A PRT is comprised of physicians, nurses, pharmacists, technicians, housekeepers, facilities management, police officers, and health administration personnel.

        With the first C-130 Air National Guard military transport aircraft arriving at 9 p.m. that day, the MEDVAMC PRT medically triaged almost 800 patients from 21 flights in the next five days. The patients, ranging from a 4-month-old to the very elderly, were generally suffering from dehydration and fatigue. The team saw a variety of medical conditions including recent organ transplants, blood clots, ventilator-dependent patients, obstetric emergencies, heart attacks, emergency dialysis, infections, and strokes. 

        In the next two weeks, the MEDVAMC admitted more than 100 patients from the hurricane-affected areas. The stories of these evacuees were amazing; none more so than that of Stanley Heinrich, a 79-year-old WWII Navy veteran, and his wife, Claudia. When their mobile home was swept away by flood waters, the Heinrichs clung to a tree and each other for three days to keep from drowning while at the same time, fighting off hunger, fatigue, the elements, insects, and snakes. They were rescued by boat and taken to the Superdome in New Orleans. Eventually, they were airlifted to Ellington Field in Houston where they were triaged by the MEDVAMC PRT. When it was determined Mr. Heinrich was a veteran, he and his wife were admitted to the MEDVAMC for care.

        Hundreds of veterans and their families fled to Houston, many needing urgent medical attention, medications, dialysis, and mental health services. As part of a multi-level plan to provide health care to veterans evacuated from New Orleans, the MEDVAMC opened the New Orleans Houston-based VA Outpatient Clinic on September 8, 2005. The clinic, located in the Recreation Therapy Gymnasium on the VA complex, now provides primary care, pharmacy, and mental health services for hurricane-affected veterans.

        The majority of the one million people displaced by Hurricane Katrina now have no medical records, making it difficult for clinicians working in disaster medical centers and community hospitals to treat them. Not so with the more than 38,000 veterans throughout southeast Louisiana, Mississippi, and the Florida panhandle who received their health care at the New Orleans VA Medical Center. Due to VA's progressive Computerized Patient Record System (CPRS) and the quick work of VA's information officers, all patient records, prescriptions, and laboratory and radiology results on every New Orleans VA patient are now available at any VA medical center and by any VA physician nationwide. Because VA uses CPRS, all patient records at the New Orleans VA were backed-up, secured, and transported to the MEDVAMC in Houston and were back on-line and available by Friday, September 2, 2005.

        As soon as staff members from the evacuated New Orleans VA Medical Center were settled and in-processed by the MEDVAMC Human Resources Office, they began working at the MEDVAMC to provide care to evacuated patients. In addition, VA health care providers, including nurses, social workers, pharmacists, administrative personnel, and health care technicians, from VA facilities all over the country arrived daily to assist in opening additional beds, clinics, programs, and services.

        On September 21, 2005, the MEDVAMC braced for a second natural disaster in a month's time, Hurricane Rita. Staff members prepared the facility and grounds for extreme weather, stocked all necessary fuel, water, food, medications, and supplies, and made arrangements for essential staff to be on hand to meet the health care needs of critically ill inpatients.

        Citizens in Galveston and Brazoria counties were ordered to evacuate and thousands of people from other Houston neighborhoods joined them on the crowded highways. Outpatient clinics in Houston, Galveston, Texas City, and Beaumont were closed on September 22 and 23, 2005 in anticipation of the storm. However, the Charles Wilson VA Outpatient Clinic in Lufkin remained operational during this time.

        Late Friday, September 23, 2005, the storm veered away from Houston and the MEDVAMC immediately switched from hurricane preparedness to hurricane relief. The facility quickly made preparations to receive patients from southeast Texas and Louisiana.

        The VA outpatient clinics in Galveston and Texas City were spared storm damage and reopened on September 28, 2005 in accordance with guidance from local government officials. After a bit of clean-up, the Charles Wilson VA Outpatient Clinic in Lufkin also reopened that day.

        The situation in Beaumont was dramatically different. With power, water, sanitation, and transportation outages in the area, the Beaumont VA Outpatient Clinic remained closed until work crews from the Houston VA could complete roof repairs and install a generator for power. The facility finally reopened on Saturday, October 1, 2005 providing health care to all members of the community while recovery efforts continued in the area.

        In the meantime, the MEDVAMC sent two VA-staffed mobile health clinics to Beaumont to evaluate and treat medical problems, administer immunizations, and refill prescriptions for all members of the community. 

        Recovery efforts continue in southeast Texas, but all agree the VA stood out as a shining star in the disaster relief efforts.  Even Paul Harvey News and Comment mentioned the VA response on September 9, 2005: "So, would you like to hear about a Federal agency that did do its job?......Okay, the VA moved 1,200 vets, staff, and family out of the hospitals in the Gulf and a good thing. The VA in Gulfport, obliterated - the one in New Orleans - useless, but the response team was in place well in advance. No excuses, none needed."

        On October 3, 2005 by unanimous consent, the Senate adopted a resolution of praise for employees of VA for their heroic efforts following Hurricane Katrina.  A portion of text of the resolution (S. Res. 263) follows: 

        Whereas patients and employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Texas provided extraordinary support and medical assistance to veterans, staff, and families affected by Hurricane Katrina and coordinated numerous medical efforts as part of the overall Federal Government response and recovery efforts in the Gulf Region; and whereas heroic actions and efforts on the part of numerous employees and volunteers of the Department of Veterans Affairs saved countless lives and provided immeasurable comfort to the victims of Hurricane Katrina:  Now, therefore, be it resolved that the Senate commends the employees and volunteers of the Department of Veterans Affairs, who risked life and limb to assist veterans, staff, and their respective families who were affected by Hurricane Katrina.

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  Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center physicians and nurses working at the Patient Reception Team at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas welcome a patient evacuated from the New Orleans VA Medical Center. With the first C-130 Air National Guard military transport aircraft arriving at 9 p.m. on August 31, 2005, the MEDVAMC PRT medically triaged almost 800 patients from 21 flights in the next five days.

Photo by: Photo by MEDVAMC Medical Media

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Felicita Frederick, a medical technician from Durham VA Medical Center in North Carolina, takes blood from New Orleans veteran Phillip Ferrer while Richard Anderson, a medical technician from Palo Alto VA Medical Center in California, checks a patient's electronic medical record at the newly created clinic for New Orleans veterans at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center.

Photo by: Bobbi Gruner, MEDVAMC Public Affairs Officer

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  Maurilio Garcia-Maldonado, M.D., Beaumont VA Outpatient Clinic executive (center) gathers the staff of the VA mobile health clinics for a quick update before departing for the hurricane-affected areas of southeast Texas.

Photo by: Photo by MEDVAMC Medical Media

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New Orleans veteran James Black (left) receives care from Kathryn Bernard, (middle) a health technician from the New Orleans VA Medical Center, and Dian Teinert, (right) nurse manager for the MEDVAMC's Primary Care. Both Teinert and Bernard are now working the New Orleans Houston-based VA Outpatient Clinic.

Photo by: Bobbi Gruner, MEDVAMC Public Affairs Officer