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Healthcare during Harvey

Following the days of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Dr. Kevin Schwechten recounted his experience coordinating aide for the people of Beaumont, Texas while also manning the only operating medical facility in the city.

As an emergency room doctor, I was boots on the ground! I work at several companies and have several different hospitals I go to, Houston and Beaumont. Just after the storm hit Beaumont, record floods swamped the area. And I drove in to work. Through two feet of water. But after arrival, I manned my post and an extraordinary thing happened. Most of us in my neighborhood are pilots with small planes and it’s a great life. But during the storm, I was stranded as was all of Beaumont. What’s worse, the city water supply failed and we were out. I decided early I’d send an email to my neighborhood. Maybe someone would want to make a short flight with a case of water for me and my nurses. The response I got was overwhelming.

We were holding our own until mid-morning when the Beaumont Municipal Water supply lost a major pump that kept the city alive. Hence, water service was shut down with no hope of return in the foreseeable future. As many lab machines in the ER and other areas of the hospital run with water, the hospital grinds to a halt. Two large medical centers, St Elizabeth’s and Baptist Hospitals, could not sustain their patient volumes and acuity under such a blow and made the decision to close and evacuate. After that happened we seemed to get a bit busier. A brief discussion with our CEO led to the decision we would remain open and “do what we can”. The idea of our little surgical hospital being the only operating medical facility in Beaumont (all other urgent cares and clinics have long since been abandoned) and I as the only doc, made us all doubt any wisdom of that decision. The email was sent, though, and hope started to rise.

Left: Approaching the helicopter for the water delivery. Right: Kevin Schwechten on the hospital helipad during Hurricane Harvey as a shipment of potable water arrives. Photos provided by the author and used with permission.

First, my nurses and staff were openly skeptical about how much this “pilot guy” thought he could really do. But Russ actually landed. We actually had water on the ground. I sent my team to the airport for the pick-up. Another plane landed with water. Now everyone was paying attention. Hope again came from Russ with the schedule of a twin Commanche’s arrival. Then an R44 pilot contacted me and asked if he could just deliver to the hospital. I loved it. After he landed in the parking lot outside our ER door, all doubt was gone. The water was pouring in, if you excuse the pun, and we started running labs and quenching thirst. We were somewhat hoarding some of the water for our future needs in the back as we truly didn’t know how long it would last. Then the Army called.

An old friend called and over the course of hours, coordinated a massive military Blackhawk, combat style delivery of 6,000 pounds of needed water bottles. I’ve truly missed the helo-side unloading with rotors turning and ears roaring of my time in Iraq, but today that was exactly what I got. Medical staff and patients’ families formed a daisy-chain unloading-team to take 125 cases of water off each of two fully loaded birds. We passed case after case to each other and unloaded the massive helicopter in record time. Twice. This was truly one of the most amazing experiences and awesome activities I’ve ever gotten the pleasure to participate in. As the deliveries were made, people driving by stopped to record this operation on cell phone cameras. After the first Blackhawk left, the word got out about the water. As it should. By the second delivery, we ended up only taking several cases into the hospital as the people, being polite and respectful, claimed it for themselves. Which is the reason it came. Between this activity, I had an ER to take care of. After the military drop, patients were found in need. Roads were no better and two more patients were helicoptered out before midnight.

Now, its 12:55 AM and I hear voices behind my door. I think I’ll try to lay down, in my clothes, before they call me again.

Featured image credit: Hurricane Harvey near the coast of Texas at peak intensity late on August 25, 2017. ABI image captured by NOAA’s GOES-16 satellite – RAMMB/CIRA SLIDER. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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