Dr. Mona Blog #3: On the medical frontlines of Hurricane Sandy's - FOX 32 News Chicago

Dr. Mona Blog #3: On the medical frontlines of Hurricane Sandy's aftermath

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

By Dr. Mona Khanna, FOX Chicago News medical contributor

Night Shift, Daytime Sleeper. Please do not disturb. My first mission (the third mission of our team) had finally come through.

At 9pm, my seven team members and I walked inside York College. We found ourselves standing at the entrance of a huge gymnasium. There must have been 200 patient cots in front of us. Another disaster worker saw us and came over. He offered to take our bags upstairs where they would be safe, then gave us a tour. There were about 160 cots in the gym, but on one level below, there were another 80. The gym section was designated for people who were being actively treated for medical problems, or for nursing home residents who had been transferred there and had nowhere else to go because about 70 nursing homes in New York City had closed after Superstorm Sandy. The beds on the lower level were reserved for people with psychiatric conditions. Our job was to supplement the care already being provided by another Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT).

I was assigned to work in triage, while my colleagues worked the floor. Triage is a way to sort people who need medical care based on the urgency of their conditions. So, for example, someone with chest pain, sweating and shortness of breath is a very high priority because those symptoms are red flags for a heart attack. Profuse bleeding is another high priority condition. A scrape on a knee is a low priority, since it isn't life threatening. After the paramedic/nurse/medical assistant takes the vital signs of the patient, the doctor sees the patient -- just like a regular office visit.

York College had opened its doors to many residents of the Rockaways and other areas hard hit by Superstorm Sandy. We were stationed in the gym, which was the medical area, but the College had also opened its Student Center as a general shelter for displaced residents. 500 cots had been placed in the Center and since it was located directly across from the gym, many of the shelter residents came to us for medication or treatment. One of the first things I noticed was the amount of security. There were armed guards at the front door, back door and lower level. They walked around and canvassed the building. They were there to protect the responders from criminals and people who were desperate for drugs or supplies, but also from the psychiatric patients. The guards were from either local law enforcement, ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) agents, FBI or U.S. Marshals. From my multiple disaster deployments, I had learned how instrumental they were…in fact, when I went downstairs to use the restroom, I noticed that not only was the basement door to the outside locked, there were multiple gardening tools – a rake, shovel, etc. – placed through the handles to prevent the doors from opening. I was so intent on looking at the way the tools were being used that I didn't notice a dark shadow just outside the door observing me. When I shifted my focus to the shadowy figure, he turned and quickly walked away. A chill ran up my spine. No wonder the doors were thus secured. Even though we took complete vital signs and did brief exams on everyone who came in, so many of the displaced people just wanted medications, since their supplies had that had been washed away in Superstorm Sandy. What was particularly frustrating was when people couldn't remember why they were taking medicine, what the name of the medicine was or what medical conditions they had. I mean, how can you figure out what "I take 3 pills at night" means? Several of the displaced people wanted sleeping pills. Many of them said they were already taking them to fall asleep, but some said they were having trouble falling asleep because of the disruption to their live after the storm. They came on crutches, in wheelchairs or by walking independently. Many of them had family members they had left in the shelter to hold their beds, while they walked across the street to get some medicine. SO many people were eager to share their personal stories, but most of the stories were some version of the following: yes, they were told to evacuate on a mandatory basis but they didn't leave because they didn't believe things would get as bad as they got; Superstorm Sandy flooded the entire first floor of their houses/apartments/buildings and destroyed their belongings and now they didn't have anywhere to go. One of the people I treated came to New York for a business opportunity that never materialized and was supposed to leave he day the storm hit. Then there were the volunteers. Some of them had lost power and utilities in their homes so they decided to volunteer in the shelter as a way to get light and heat for most of the day or night. And so it went, patient after patient. I worked with a great paramedic named Rich Yunker from Massachusetts. Rich would see the patient first and then hand him/her off to me. We both worked to make sure all of the patient information was logged into the electronic medical records, a new system implemented by the federal government for disaster medicine. If the patient needed medication, we walked over to the pharmacy on another side of the gym to discuss the situation with the pharmacist. Next to the pharmacy was the medical supply area. I noticed the oxygen tanks immediately, they were plentiful and neatly stacked.

By the next morning, my team was exhausted. We had been up the entire day before as well as the entire night without a break. Eight of our team members arrived to relieve us. It was great to see them! We headed back to the Empire State #6 ship for some grub and some rest. Luckily, someone had printed up signs that read "Night Shift, Daytime Sleeper. Please do not disturb." I grabbed one, pinned it on my berthing door on the ship, got ready for bed and sunk into a deep sleep since I was on the graveyard shift again that night.

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