October 16, 2017
Englewood, CO- As the director of two free standing emergency rooms in the South Metro Denver area, Laura-Anne Cleveland, RN, BSN, CEN is used to working in crisis. But when she got the call to respond to Hurricane Irma, she had no idea what she was about to see.
“St. John was truly the worst hit island -- no green was to be seen, not a building left undamaged, power lines down, houses obliterated, and boats cut in half. The most amazing part was the people. They had lost everything and they would say things like, "well, all of my house is gone and scattered down the hill, but I found a few dear items so I’m good... it could have been worse."
We saw diabetic patients, septic patients and gave lots of tetanus shots. Many people couldn’t get any food or water or prescriptions. We had patients drinking pool water in desperation and one drinking fuel while ciphering it, thinking it was water. We were their lifeline! When we arrived, we were the first real relief on the island. The nurses and doctors at the clinic had weathered the storm together, and had worked non-stop for five days. We arrived in a Blackhawk helicopter and immediately started seeing patients, allowing the staff time to sleep, rest and mourn. Some nurses were travelers and had lost their contracts during this time. Some had come from St. Thomas. The hospital there had been destroyed and they simply wanted to help. Others sent their families to the mainland while they stayed to give of themselves and see patients. Their selfless acts was awe-inspiring! At times, we had very few medical supplies so we preserved. We witnessed generosity of Kenny Chesney and Michael Bloomberg's "boots on the ground" as they found supplies for the team. The best part about being in the Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) and working under Health and Human Services (HHS) is that we brought a cache of supplies – medical, food and water. We were able to not hurt the already taxed supplies of the clinic and also have other DMAT individuals bring in more drugs and supplies as we needed them.
We saw patients in Coral Bay huddled under a tent while it rained and water poured down our backs. In Coral Bay, a firefighter EMT had worked since the hurricane hit and hadn't stopped. She knew the people of St. John like family and knew which people needed to be checked on. She dedicated her life to these people and was hard pressed to take a break even with us there assisting her. We had Meals Ready-to-Eat (MREs) for and were blessed with an islander who brought us eggs. Everyone seemed to worry that we were helping them and didn't have good food, despite our assurances. One lady, whose husband broke his leg and had to be medically evacuated off the island, stayed with her son so that she could take care of others on the island. One night she arrived to the clinic with her dogs (saying we needed our momentary pet therapy) and games for us if we had time to play, as well as pancake mix for a true breakfast. She also brought chips and dip. So one night as a morale booster, we had chips, dip, cheese and meat (from a nurse on our team who brought it to the island). It was a great bonding time with the people there as we made the food for them and not just for us.
The Disaster Instant Response Team (DIRT) and Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams checked on us and worked to find people we reported as needing help or missing. We were the only helipad, thus the only way in and out of the island (until ferries opened up) so we became the hub for supplies as well as various visitors to the island. We had an admiral, four-star general, Michael Bloomberg and the mayor visiting us during our deployment. When the bands from Hurricane Jose touched us, we had massive flooding inside and out of the clinic. We were up one night until 2 a.m. trying to catch and clean up all of the water inside. Our firefighter teammate made chutes and other contraptions to allow us to sleep without being drenched. We bathed in a cold faucet once or twice while there, so it did make us feel human. We had amazing bonds with the Army National Guard team from Kentucky as they provided our medical evacuations. They were a life source for us! They even brought a small can of soda as a blessing. From every area, we saw people band together and take care of each other. You didn't worry about floods or food or water or electricity. You did whatever it took to take care of the people. Nothing fazed us -- at one point we lost the generator and quite literally didn’t lose a step. We got our headlamps out, put them on, and continued with patient care.
Many ask about my experience and I can only answer that it was life changing. It's hard to qualify what that means. But in many areas, my care for people and realizing what's really a hurdle or problem has changed. Anything can be overcome! The stories behind each person and what brings them to our doors, are often unknown to us. But we need to remember that there IS a story. Regardless of the amount of time that passes, my heart will remain with the people and caregivers on St. John! It was an honor to serve the people and I ended up being the one humbled and blessed!”
Note: Laura-Anne Cleveland, RN, BSN, CEN, serves as director of Swedish Southwest ER and Belmar ER.