Spinal Cord Team Stays by Patients During Disaster - Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas
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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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Spinal Cord Team Stays by Patients During Disaster

Spinal Cord Team Stays by Patients During Disaster

Dr. Sally Holmes, Chief, Spinal Cord Injury Unit

By Patrick Hutchison
Friday, September 1, 2017
Devastation.  Destruction.  These words echo in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.  For two physicians at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in the heart of Houston, Texas, these words describe the storm but not their experiences as part of the 700 staff who have served at the hospital since Friday.

"We all looked out for each other,” says Sally Holmes, M.D., Chief, Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Unit.  “Really, it’s teamwork.”

Before Hurricane Harvey could make landfall, it was imperative for Dr. Holmes and her team, which includes Carol Bodenheimer, M.D., to contact Veterans with spinal injuries that leave them the most vulnerable in situations like the hurricane.  Routinely, SCI makes house checks, but with the storm, staff sheltered in place.  Veterans needed emergency plans that would keep them safe.  Three Veterans were admitted prior to landfall, making 35 occupied SCI beds with most on life-assisted equipment.

“I had work,” explains Dr. Bodenheimer.  “I had a job to do.”

Staff worked around the clock.  Most of these vulnerable Veterans cannot turn themselves, and nurses turn them every couple of hours.  Doctors rounded floors, continuing to care for Veterans, even texting pharmacists who had evacuated regarding patient prescriptions.  As Hurricane Harvey crashed into Houston, everyone braced together.

“Anxiety was so hard,” Dr. Bodenheimer describes.  “Everyone understood the priorities, though.  Veterans showed that they really cared; asking how my family was through a ventilator.”

Sunday and Monday were the hardest days.  Dr. Bodenheimer’s husband and children were sheltered in their home as the water rushed in and power went out.  To conserve battery power should he need to call emergency personnel, Dr. Bodenheimer’s husband turned his cell phone off.  Dr. Bodenheimer worked through the silence and uncertainty, caring for Veterans who were worried about their families but also the doctors and nurses and staff providing their care.  Just as quickly as the water flooded
Dr. Bodenheimer’s home, it left and power was restored.

“It has been the most stressful week of my life as a physician and a person, “Dr. Bodenheimer says.  “But, I have a feeling of gratitude that everyone had food.  Everyone had sleep.  Everyone had what they needed.”

Hurricane Harvey’s impact continues to be felt.  Evacuations are still ongoing. 

“Having not been home yet is surreal,” explains Dr. Holmes.  “I’m still in ‘taking-care-of-Veterans mode.’”

Physicians from VAs in San Antonio and Oklahoma are on their way to relieve Dr. Holmes and Dr. Bodenheimer.  VA nurses and technicians from around the state are also arriving to maintain care for Houston Veterans.

Dr. Holmes says, “VA is such a huge family.  When we are in need, we look to the mission and what it means.” 

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