5 ways doctors can cope when natural disaster strikes

The ice storm of 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia made headlines for weeks described as “snowpocalypse” and “snowmageddon.” It looked like something from a sci-fi movie — the end of the world, an alien invasion. It was the subject of social media memes and discourse for quite some time. In the midst of all that human frustration, there were ice-trapped cars, parents who struggled to reach children trapped at elementary schools.

Physicians, nurses and hospital staff remained steadfast in their commitment to patient care. They were bound to duty and remained in hospital critical areas, intensive care units and emergency rooms. They were always ready to receive patients while the rest of the city around them came to a screeching halt, as families together fortified dealt with the wrath of Mother Nature. If you have lived in a city that has experienced any major natural disaster, this type of scenario is not new to you.

As I watched the news, spoke with close physician friends, and who were affected by the recent Hurricane Harvey in Texas and experienced a small portion of Irma here in the southeast, I was touched again by the untold story of physicians, nurses and hospital staff and our sacrifice in the midst of disaster. There are physician mothers and fathers who were forced to take multiple nights of call without relief because backup could not get to the hospital. Others still are separated from their family, leaving a spouse, aging parents to fend for themselves.

They prepare to continually take care of patients hoping that the plans in place work for their family knowing their children are in good hands perhaps but not with them. It is a difficult time in these scenarios. Every day, physicians manage the medical needs of our patients, which by itself requires a high level of emotional investment. However, in the midst of natural disaster and crisis, this demand increased exponentially. How do we take care of ourselves and our own families while meeting the needs around us? What the public never realizes is that for those who are not frontline responders, EMS, firefighters or police officers, there is a small army of physicians and other health care workers that sustain our hospital systems while the entire world shuts down. This is a tremendous sacrifice and often goes unsung. These physicians sometimes have little lead time to prepare.

As we think about the importance of evacuation and disaster planning, how do we — as health care providers —
address our own immediate needs, those of our own families, so that we can effectively provide patient care? Here are five things for physicians and hospital staff to consider when time permits preparation for a natural disaster facing your community.

1. You cannot compartmentalize. In a disaster or extended period of service due to inclement weather, you may need to continue patient care for a longer period without relief than you have done in the past. However, this does to mean you put your humanity aside and only fulfill the role of physician/provider. You have the right to embrace your needs during the time of distress. If it is a safe time in patient care, please answer the phone if family is calling even if just to hear your voice.

2. Have a plan for your own family. Plan ahead, and I would argue plan on the side of extreme caution. If just one adult parent, a spouse, for example, will be with the children, discuss in real terms how that parent will cope alone with minimal support from you. If that means leaving the city to go with extended family or friends, discuss that as a real and viable option. Can your family be safely relocated to a hotel space within a walkable distance from the hospital? Is there space at the hospital to accommodate them within the framework of your organization disaster management plan? Additionally, if you are apart, how will you communicate? What will your reunification plan be? Do you have an area in the city or outside the city limits where you can reunite? The great thing about the advances in our technology is we have more communication channels open than before, cell phones, email and social media. Recent natural disasters have shown us how invaluable social media can be in a crisis.

3. Take a moment to breathe. These situations are scary — overwhelming even. You are probably feeling the same level of anxiety as your patients about your home, children, pets, and life. Add to that the additional responsibility we all feel for our patients, and it’s an enormous burden. Continue to breathe.

4. Pack for an extended period of coverage. When you leave for your shift or call, pack as if you may not return for some time. What starts off as a minor weather pattern can escalate to a major event, particularly in the aftermath as a community grapples with rebuilding and navigating destruction to the infrastructure. Prepare for the long-haul but hope for the absolute best.

5. Lend a helping hand. I’ve seen this time and time again as part of the physician community and member of health care systems — we are all connected. During the Atlanta ice storm, for example, physician and hospital staff colleagues stepped up for each other. Those who lived closer to the facilities took coverage for those who were further away. Others opened up their homes or found strategic and safe ways to relieve their colleagues. They checked in on the families of colleagues who were stranded at the hospital. This spirit of community happens in every disaster and major event. It brings out the best in our profession. Let’s continue the essence of what we do. We must extend grace and support to not only to our patients but our colleagues in times of hardship.

There are so many valuable lessons that can be learned as we encounter natural disasters in our communities and abroad from the perspective of health care system needs. Let us not forget to include ourselves in that process of reevaluation and disaster management preparedness. Providers working through disasters need to be ready and prepare their own families so that they can meet patient. It is essential that our institutions of medicine continue to recognize the sacrifice of all hospital staff including physicians in times such as this, and offer support to all as needed. Unfortunately, these natural phenomena are becoming much more common.

N. Bande Virgil is a pediatric hospitalist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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