On the medical frontlines of Hurricane Sandy's aftermath - KMSP-TV

Dr. Mona Blog #1: On the medical frontlines of Hurricane Sandy's aftermath

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By Dr. Mona Khanna, FOX Chicago News medical contributor

CHICAGO (FOX Chicago News) - I always perk up when disaster looms. Not because I wish ill on anyone, but because as a 14-year emergency medical aid volunteer, I know I might be called to help. So I'd already been watching the Weather Channel for 4 days when my Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) was put on activation alert the weekend before Halloween. That's when Sandy made her presence known in the U.S. As the huge waves washed ashore, as the winds barreled down, I just knew I'd be called.

So when the call finally came on Tuesday, I had fewer than 6 hours' notice that I was being deployed as a medical aid worker to assist in the recovery after Sandy. I rushed to check my Go-Bag, a duffel packed with the required deployment supplies: an extra set of standard issue navy BDUs (battle dress uniforms), a personal first aid kit, team t-shirts, hand sanitizer, food bars, personal effects and stethoscope, penlight and other medical equipment.

My official Deployment Activation orders came down from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness & Response, Dept of Health and Human Services. I changed into my BDUs and steel-toe boots, packed a carry-on bag, grabbed my Go-Bag and down-filled Marmot sleeping bag and a travel pillow, and headed out to O'Hare Airport. My travel orders had also come down from the federal government. I was to fly into Philadelphia and pick up a rental car to drive to New York, location to be specified later.

DMATs are one type of emergency aid team under the National Disaster Medical System, which falls under the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness & Response in the Dept of Health & Human Services.

Our sister team that takes care of animals is called NVRT, which stands for National Veterinary Response Team. Animals are often abandoned, stunned and dazed after a disaster. If they are not properly taken care of, they can become defensive and/or offensive, so the NVRTs mission to find and care for animals is an important one.

I first became involved with DMAT back in 1998 when a lot of refugees from Eastern Europe were brought into the U.S. after fleeing ethnic cleansing and civil unrest. The U.S. was asked for public health doctors to help with the medical screening of these refugees. At that time, I was the medical director of San Bernardino County in southern California, and I volunteered. Doing so meant I had to join and credential with the local DMAT. I was deployed for two weeks. After that, I worked at the medical clinics at Ground Zero after the September 11 attacks, then hurricane after hurricane. My disaster work has also taken me overseas after the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Haiti earthquake and the recent Great Tohoku earthquake in Japan, among 10 other humanitarian missions. Because Illinois doesn't have a DMAT, I'm on the Texas-4 DMAT so you'll see my in the standard Texas uniform of navy BDUs with the Texas flag patch.

I finally received my location orders. I was to go to Queens College in, you guessed it, Queens, New York. On the way there I received a re-route. My Administrative Officer told me to head to JFK Airport instead, to meet the rest of the team. I was already on I-95 north, so I just kept going. I wouldn't be surprised if the location changed again, I thought. No sooner said than done. GO TO SUNY MARITIME COLLEGE IN THROGGS NECK, NY was the next message.

I reprogrammed my phone and kept going on I-95 North. It was starting to get dark. When I drove over the George Washington Bridge, I noticed half of the bridge was dark, the other half was lit. Power outage. I veered east on I-46 and followed the directions until I got to the College. A guard escorted my car to the building where the teams were being staged. Once there, I greeted my co-workers and we had dinner. We were briefed on the accommodations for the night and the plan. We would be sleeping in barracks on the Empire State #6 ship anchored just over the gangway in the harbor and meet the next morning after breakfast at 8am for another briefing.

Not much was known about where we would be assigned, but we weren't surprised. We knew there was so much information emerging by the minute and that the situation was so dynamic that management would want to get the biggest bang for the buck by putting our 41-member team at a place that really needed the levels of care we offered…all the way from an EMT to a specialized physician. And we were so tired, after having traveled much of the day. So we gathered our Go-Bags, sleeping bags and carry-ons and headed over to the ship. I knew a little of what to expect since I had been stationed on the USS Iwo Jima during my humanitarian trips to South America. The women were assigned four to a room, with 2-story bunks, 2 sinks and a toilet, and most of the men were assigned to one huge room with 3- or 4-story bunks. My roommates and I showered and went to bed eager to see what the next day would bring.

 

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