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Power Lines Litter the Streets of Puerto Rico in Maria's Wake
Friday, January 12, 2018
When VAAAHS registered nurse Robert Greco began the process to re-enroll as a volunteer he had no idea that the United States would soon be facing arguably the worst hurricane season in history. Greco, a former Army Research Specialist, and a father of two had previously deployed to Marlin, Texas to support Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. In the years following Katrina, Greco took a hiatus from volunteering. He had just accepted a position in the primary care unit and acclimating to his new role required his full devotion. In March 2017, now accustomed to his assignment, Greco knew it was once again time to volunteer.
On August 26th, the first of five major hurricanes to hit the US and Caribbean, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, leaving much of the nation’s fourth largest city under water and triggering 30 days of bedlam. Just 15 days later, Hurricane Irma, with peak winds of 185 mph would touch down in south Florida, causing an estimated $50 - $100 billion worth of damage. The following week, Puerto Rico was pummeled with unbridled fury when, what many consider to be the worst natural disaster in the U.S. territory’s history, Hurricane Maria made landfall. Maria decimated Puerto Rico’s power grid creating an apocalyptic nightmare, stranding most of the island’s 3.4 million residents without electricity or any modern means of communication.
As Greco watched the cataclysm unfold on television, he knew it would be a matter of time before he was called to assist in recovery efforts.
October 4th was just another Wednesday at work for Robert Greco when he received the call he had been eagerly awaiting. The voice on the other end of the phone advised him to tie up loose ends and prepare to leave within twenty-four hours. Upon receiving these instructions, Greco feverishly rushed to finalize his paperwork and get things in order.
On the drive home his cell phone rang. He was told that he would be flying out of Detroit Metro Airport at 8:15 pm, enroute to Puerto Rico. He immediately called his wife. He explained that he would be leaving in a few short hours and asked her to pack a bag with his hospital scrubs.
Greco arrived home, secured his bags and hugged his family goodbye before rushing through the door to leave for DTW. After searching for a parking spot in the packed garage for what seemed like an eternity, and maneuvering through the long security screening line, Greco sprinted to the gate from where his plane was scheduled to depart. He feared he would miss his flight. “No one was there” he said describing the empty gate area. The crew was preparing to close the door, but an airline employee checked him in and allowed him to board. The first leg of the journey was to Atlanta, where he would join other relief volunteers from across the country for the flight to Puerto Rico the next day.
Over the course of his nearly four-hour flight to San Juan, Greco’s imagination ran wild. He envisioned the destruction that awaited him when he would disembark from the aircraft and his feet touched the Puerto Rican soil for the first time. Through the thick glass of the airplane portal Greco’s mental images of the worst-case scenario became a stark reality. He never could have imagined what he saw. “Once we got close to Puerto Rico, you could see some of the houses were totally destroyed. The roofs were ripped off, areas that you could tell were once lush forests had been stripped” Greco recalled of the descent into San Juan.
From the airport, a cramped, muggy bus transported Greco, and a team of volunteers down a ghostly highway strewn with abandoned cars and littered with debris to their destination, the “Coliseo Juan Aubin Cruz Abreu Bincito” a basketball arena in the northern coastal town of Manati, where the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had set up a medical station. Every day for the next two weeks, Greco labored through fourteen hours of tropical heat and frequent power outages providing medical care to Maria’s victims.
With patients aged from 2 months to 102 years, Greco cared for a diverse population suffering from an enormous range of conditions. Greco recalled treating a patient with diabetes: “He was isolated, he lived pretty far away, and didn’t have any insulin, he walked by himself, forty miles through everything, to a hospital and the hospital was shut down…They let him know (about the aid station) at the shelter in Manati. He walked another forty miles to get to us.”
Another one of Greco’s remarkable patients was a woman who needed a ventilator to breathe: “We had a gentleman who was taking care of his wife at home, they lost power…It went out during the hurricane. He stayed with his wife and blew into her trach (tracheotomy incision) for over two hours until they were discovered and able to be airlifted to a shelter or hospital.”
When natural disasters rip communities apart, often-times the extent of devastation is so widespread and severe that local and state governments are unable to adequately handle the response/recovery process. In these instances, the affected states or territories may request federal assistance. If they do, the President would issue a Disaster Declaration, activating the National Response Framework (NRF).
When it has been determined that medical resources are needed, FEMA or the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) can ask Veterans Health Administration (VHA) to provide medical personnel, supplies, or equipment to the affected area. Many people are not aware of VA’s “Fourth Mission,” which is to improve the Nation’s preparedness for response to war, terrorism, national emergencies, and natural disasters and to support national, state, and local emergency management, public health, safety, and homeland security efforts.
When asked to provide resources and personnel, VHA turns to the Disaster Emergency Medical Personnel System (DEMPS). DEMPS is made up full time VA employees, clinical, and non-clinical, who volunteer to deploy to disaster areas where their specific skillset is needed. Depending on the needs of the area, a DEMPS volunteer may support either an internal mission, helping to staff VA facilities in need of extra personnel, or an external mission deployed to the affected community to provide services to Veterans and non-Veterans alike.
Robert Greco’s volunteer experience is an example of the DEMPS program providing external support in the wake of disaster. Another VAAAHS employee, Dion Humphrey, a Health Technician, and DEMPS volunteer since 2013, contributed for the VA’s internal DEMPS mission. Following Hurricane Harvey, Humphrey deployed to Texas, to assist Houston’s Michael E Debakey VA Medical Center.
Primarily working in mental health admissions, Humphrey filled in for staff who had their lives turned upside down by Harvey. “The staff were affected by the storm, some of them had really bad days,” he said of the unit. “Some of them said they’d lost just about everything.” Humphrey’s duties included signing-in patients who were experiencing emotional difficulties resulting from Hurricane Harvey and helping them become acquainted to the unit. “A lot of the Veterans there, suffered through some trauma…I was glad to be an ear, to listen, to offer some type of support,” Humphrey said of his time aiding Harvey’s Veteran victims.
In her role as VAAAHS Emergency Manager, Samantha Brandfon is also the DEMPS coordinator. She provides guidance in program eligibility and prepares volunteers for the deployment experience and safe return to their family and co-workers. Ms. Brandfon began her DEMPS involvement as a volunteer herself. During the devastating August-December Hurricane deployment period, she dedicated over 500 hours toward the support of the DEMPS mission.
Regarding the importance of DEMPS, Brandfon explained: “People are our most valuable resource. Being able to support and empower DEMPS volunteers before, during, and after their deployment is one significant way that I can contribute, and advocate for the survivors of the disaster. Engaging in the DEMPS program allows me to have an impact across all dimensions of the program and to bring forward the lessons learned and success stories of our hard-working volunteers.”
Brandfon also wants to recognize and give thanks for the herculean effort made by the amazing DEMPS Qualification Team members in Employee Health, Fiscal, and Education. Thanks also to the Supervisors and co-workers who worked hard to ensure adequate coverage during their team members’ deployment. Without these incredible colleagues, the DEMPS program wouldn’t be possible.
Throughout this storm season, ten VAAAHS employees deployed to aid and assist in various disaster relief efforts through the DEMPS program. Supporting the mission in Puerto Rico were: Robert Greco, RN Dennis Balow, Biomedical Engineering Technician Nicole Harmon, RN Dorothy Speer, RN CPL David Pardon, VA Police Officer Mark Matusik, Biomedical Lead Engineering Technician Melissa Barnes, Education Technician Paige Williams, Pharmacy Technician Emily Ostrom, Medical Support Assistant Additionally, Dion Humphrey, a HealthTechnician, deployed to Debakey VA Medical Center in Houston.