A lesson from Hurricane Harvey: Compassion has meaning

On September 1, 2017, four children and their grandparents drowned while their uncle was trying to drive them to safety. Their van was swept off the road by rushing floodwaters. The uncle was able to escape through a half-open window as the van sank headfirst into the bayou. As the van sank, he could hear the four children screaming and crying. Two days later, the van was found, with all six victims still inside. One wanted to be a scientist and loved his T-shirt that said, “1 more question!” One wanted to be a veterinarian, always feeding the cats in the neighborhood. The other two were younger than ten with their entire lives ahead of them. This was just one of the many heartbreaking stories of Hurricane Harvey.

When Harvey first began to approach, Houston went on the alert. The hospital where my husband and I are fellows instituted a disaster plan. Two teams were created: Team A and Team B. After the initial 48 hours, Team B would come in to relieve team A. We all hoped for the best. Most of all, we all hoped that these disaster plans would never be needed and that we would be able to laugh off our worries the following week. How wrong we were.

When Harvey hit, the fellows on Team A stayed overnight in the hospital as a precautionary measure. No one was sure whether the roads and highways would be passable the following morning and leaving the hospital understaffed seemed to be too great a risk to take. As the heavy rains continued, the flooding around the Texas Medical Center reached historic proportions. It was as if time itself stood still. The same flooding that we could see in the medical center took place across all of Houston. Homes were destroyed. Lives were lost. Lifetime memories and mementos were swept away in a matter of hours. There was chaos everywhere.

Our colleagues became heroes. Physicians, nurses, and technicians worked tirelessly and selflessly through the days and nights to keep the hospitals going, not knowing whether their own homes had been flooded or if their loved ones were safe. As the flooding continued, even food and water had to be rationed. After two days, Team B was finally able to reach the hospital and relieve Team A, allowing them to finally go home and be with their families. As the roads cleared, life in the medical center returned to normal. It did not return to normal for the rest of Houston.

Thousands of people driven from their homes by Harvey, sheltering wherever they could, now returned to try to find their families and begin the slow process of recovery. For Houston, mere recovery was not enough. Houstonians became heroes. They came out in their boats, SUVs, and even their paddleboards to ferry their neighbors to safety. They braved downed power lines in the water to pull people from flooded homes. It was not only Houstonians who answered the call. Many drove for hours from neighboring states with their boats to assist in search and rescue teams. People turned out in droves to volunteer at the medical shelters, donating supplies, time and expertise. At one point, the volunteer line outside George R. Brown Convention Center grew so large that volunteers had to be turned away.

My husband and I both volunteered at the medical shelters. I went to George R. Brown Convention Center, as part of a team of many different specialties. My husband went to Reliant Stadium, where he served as chief triage officer. At George R. Brown, my first patient had terrible chest pain and was worried he was having a heart attack. He had just had stents placed in his heart three months prior and had been told never to miss a dose of his medications, the same medications he had lost in the flood. Many patients were suffering from infected wounds due to exposure to the floodwaters. Through donations, we could replace medications and perform procedures in the triage area. Yet, we noticed a common symptom for which we had no treatment. How did one treat the loss of one’s family? How did one treat the sense of being completely uprooted? When I went home that night, a feeling of powerlessness kept me awake. As a physician, powerlessness is not a friend. It is an uncomfortable companion since it reminds us of our own limitations. We learn to endure its companionship because there will be many moments in our lives where we must overcome those limitations to help our patients.

My husband told me of a patient he met towards the end of his night shift. An elderly woman came to him and said that she was having severe back pain. She had lost her oxycodone prescription. She had Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. One week prior, she and her doctor had decided that further treatments would only cause more suffering and that home hospice would be the best option for her. The goal was for her to spend the rest of her days with her loved ones in peace and comfort. My husband asked her whether her family was with her. She said that they were separated in the flood. She did not know whether they were alive. There were hundreds more who were bereft, and as physicians, all we could do was listen wordlessly, biting back our own emotional reactions.

As devastating as Hurricane Harvey was, the truth of Mother Nature is that all storms have their end. Though our lives returned to normal, we learned an important lesson. No matter how powerless one feels, however small and meaningless our actions may seem, any action taken out of compassion for a fellow human being has profound meaning. The incredible privilege that we have, to lay hands upon a patient and use our knowledge to heal them, is earned by years of toil, labor, and compassion — compassion is always found in chaos.

Neeti Reddy is a cardiology fellow. Praveen Vijhani is a pulmonary fellow.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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