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In Their Own Words… Members Speak Out About Storm Experiences

Sep 23, 2011

Bryan Johnston, Facility Director/Chief Pharmacist, Choctaw Nation Health Clinic, Atoka, Okla.

Bryan Johnston’s home in Atoka, Okla., was severely damaged by a tornado on April 14, 2011. He has had a lot of previous experience with large storms as an officer in the U.S. Public Health Service. In September 2004, Johnston was deployed to Florida after hurricanes Frances and Ivan hit, and as Jeanne was on its way.

April 14 Tornado

As I watched the storm approach my house, I was in denial telling myself it was a normal wall cloud and we would just get some hail and rain. Then the wind started coming extremely strong from the east even though the storm was coming from the southwest. Tennis ball-sized hail started raining down. I ran into my daughter’s room, grabbed her mattress, pulled it over the heads of my wife, my daughter, myself and our puppy after we hunkered down in the laundry room and shut the door. We didn’t have a cellar or a safe room.

People asked me if the tornado sounded like a freight train, but to me it sounded like a jet engine. It seemed like five minutes, but truthfully it was probably two to three minutes at most. Afterward, there was glass and water everywhere. My workshop, a 45’x50’ insulated building out back, had bounced off the house and was thrown into the country road. It was just twisted metal and insulation.

The roof of the house had been torn bare on one side, and you could see where it had tried to pull the whole roof off by ripping the sheetrock along all of the seams. Rain had come into the house from the storm front right behind the tornado, and the ceilings started falling in. We lost all but a few pine trees on our property, which is 60 acres. My pick-up truck was thrown toward the house. It would have slammed into the house, but it hit one of the remaining pine trees. We came out unscathed.

My friend said that we were so lucky. I didn’t feel lucky, but that was before I’d left my place and driven through the places he saw. Once I saw them, I knew that we had been very fortunate.

September 2004 Hurricane Relief

When we first got to the shelter set up in an elementary school cafeteria, it was full of bedridden patients, most of whom had been transferred from long-term care facilities. There were close to 100 people who had been there for several days with one person babysitting them who had no health care experience. They didn’t have showers, so we converted a laundry room with a floor drain into a shower room. Many couldn’t stand on their own or were on oxygen or needed to be turned every few hours.

Within the first 24 hours, we got everyone clean clothes, clean bedding, and met their immediate medical needs. So, right off the bat, I turned from being a pharmacist to being a nurse’s aide. My wife finds it comical because she had been a nurse’s aide before she became a nurse.

After we got the patients clean, I went to work trying to get them their medications. The facilities had bagged up what they could. We just started doing reviews and setting up schedules and trying to acquire drugs. We were able to empty out the shelter and get everyone situated within one week.

Tim Holding, Pharm.D., Staff Pharmacist, St. John’s Mercy Hospital, Joplin, Mo.

Tim Holding was on duty when an EF5 tornado leveled a third of Joplin on May 22, 2011, killing more than 150 people and injuring thousands. The nine-story hospital will be demolished and rebuilt.

One of my technicians, Mica, and I were trying to find flashlights. In the wake of this event, I am now recommending that every staffer in a hospital know where they are and that they have batteries that work. There were so many wires hanging in hallways and water dripping all over that there was no way to safely walk out there without light. We smelled gas throughout the whole hospital.

I heard there were patients trapped on Six West. We went up there to pull them out. How we ended up getting patients down the stairways was the fun part: mattresses, wheelchairs… if the patients could walk, we helped them walk down. Many were able to walk out or be carried out into the parking lot and get onto ambulances, trucks, anything that could move them to other hospitals.

I didn’t know how bad it was around town even when I got home that night. I turned on the TV and they were covering it, but I wasn’t really watching, I was talking to my wife. I didn’t know how bad it was until the next day when my dad drove me to the temporary hospital at Memorial Hall and I could see the hardest-hit areas.

When you’re going through this kind of storm, it’s surreal. You don’t really think about what’s going on and what has happened. You really never think about a tornado actually hitting. Then, seeing the destruction afterward, you think to yourself, “this isn’t where this is supposed to be, and why is this like this?” At this point, though, I guess you could say that I’ve gotten to point of acceptance.

Tim Martin, Pharm.D., Director of Pharmacy, DCH Regional Medical Center, Tuscaloosa, Al.

On April 27, 2011, Tim Martin was at the DCH Regional Medical Center when a funnel cloud 1.5 miles wide came within a few blocks. The storm killed more than 65 people and injured more than a 1,000 during its 80-mile path.

I positioned myself in the emergency department (ED) and brought two pharmacists with me who could respond to immediate medication needs that couldn’t be met through the normal channels. Some patients were severely and critically injured; some came in and went straight to the OR. There were some lives lost immediately after the storm, and several individuals were admitted. We saw about 800 people in six hours in our ED. Every wall had a patient on it either on a stretcher or in a wheelchair.

The emotional response comes in several waves. The initial wave is just “all hands on deck,” and you have to put yourself in a position where you can do whatever is needed. At one point, I was changing a tire on an ambulance. Ten minutes later, I was doing eye irrigations on an 89-year-old lady. Twenty minutes after that, I was helping a man who was about to leave the hospital. He was frustrated, upset, and still in shock. I was trying to convince him to stay and let us take a look at his head, which had a pretty bad bang. I held the guy’s hand for 20 minutes until he calmed down.

Over the next few days, I was kind of numb. Some of your patient interactions can be very intense. You keep wondering when things will get back to normal and if you’re out of the woods yet.

About a week after the tornado, I started feeling like I didn’t want to go into the worst-hit zones anymore. I had been out in the field, working in some of the more heavily damaged areas out in the community removing debris, cutting trees out of houses, things like that. But after about a week of that, I started having to pull back emotionally. Even today, more than two months out, when I have to drive through that area of town, I can feel myself needing to prepare emotionally.

Sarah Boyd, Pharm.D., BCPS, Pharmacy Clinical  Coordinator, St. John’s Mercy Hospital, Joplin, MO.

As soon as Sarah Boyd learned that St. John’s Mercy Hospital had been hit, she headed in from her home in nearby Carthage. The first night, she was assigned to the triage center in the temporary hospital set up in Memorial Hall, about a mile from the hospital.

The hospital evacuated 183 patients in 90 minutes. I was the first pharmacist to get to the triage center. There were no beds. There was really nothing there. Supplies started trickling in, and we organized what we had. Most of the patients coming in were walking wounded. We had patients who had taken insulin but hadn’t eaten, so we were trying to handle blood sugar issues as well. I think I left about 3 a.m., went home and slept for a while.

At first, I felt more disbelief than anything. You have disaster preparedness, you go through the drills, but you never think it will happen or happen to the magnitude it did. First, you experience shock and disbelief. Then comes the impact of what we have to do and how we will do it. When I went back and saw the damage to the hospital itself, I thought it was amazing that more people weren’t hurt in the storm.

Steven Stoner, Pharm.D., BCPS, Clinical Professor and Chair, Division of Pharmacy Practice and Administration, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Pharmacy

Steven Stoner helped with relief efforts for the Joplin, Mo., tornado, which included locating, collecting and transporting drugs and other crucial medical supplies to the disaster zone, treating patients, and cleaning up debris. More than 30 students and faculty from the pharmacy school traveled to Joplin on school-organized trips.

I’ve seen a lot of disheartening things in my career, things that pull at my heartstrings, but the magnitude of the devastation was probably the most humbling experience I’ve ever had. You would clean up one lot that’s on a little bit of a slope. Then, you’d go to the top of the slope and look at what is behind it, and you see total destruction. Your thoughts then go out to the families who lost everything, and you begin to appreciate the simple things you take for granted.

One thing that I can’t emphasize enough to people who want to help in these situations is to go with an organized group that has a plan. When people just showed up and wanted to help, it was difficult and more chaotic. At the Missouri state clinics that were set up, the dispensary had an organized check-in system. Someone was in charge and assigned you to your area. If you were a pharmacist, you had to provide certification and identification that you were a licensed professional. Showing up willy nilly makes it very difficult for those on the ground. Lot of people want to help, but being organized is critical.

Lois F. Parker, R.Ph., Pediatric Pharmacy Team Lead, Massachusetts General Hospital Pharmacy Department, Boston

In Holliston, Mass., we are rarely affected by hurricanes due to our inland location 25 miles west of Boston. However, Hurricane Irene was different than most, as it travelled north and veered west, affecting a wide swath of interior New England in late August of this year.

By the time the storm arrived in Holliston Sunday morning, it had been downgraded to a tropical storm. The news media was warning people to not become complacent, since even a tropical storm carries winds greater than 45 mph.

My daughter had already learned that classes had been canceled for her first day of college at the University of Vermont, and students were asked to stay in their dorms on Sunday due to heavy wind warnings. Clearly, this was another layer of worry we had not anticipated when we sent her off to college. As it turned out, much of Vermont was ravaged by this storm.

We lost power briefly at 8 a.m. and were relieved when it came back quickly. Throughout the morning, the rain and wind were heavy, and the skies were dark. Several times, I heard branches fall, and then at 10 a.m., after a gust of wind that sounded like a train coming through, we lost power, and it stayed off.

By 4 p.m., the worst of the storm had passed. We discovered the reason for our power failure: A telephone pole and tree had come down, blocking our entire road and pulling the wires down with them. It was astounding to see the extent of the damage. A tree had come down on the roof of a neighbor’s house, the roof of a convertible was heavily damaged by a branch, and a large old tree was completely uprooted from a nearby yard.

Fortunately, a recent renovation to our house included a wiring upgrade. So, once the generator was up and running, we had power to the refrigerator, freezer, some lights and electrical outlets, and hot water. We were without a microwave, oven, kitchen outlets, a dishwasher, and cable. However, we knew how fortunate we were to have what we did.

I went to Haiti twice after the earthquake as a volunteer pharmacist with Project Medishare. Among the many positives that came from these trips was the perspective that I gained. It definitely helped me endure the inconvenience of four days without power. The whole experience left us feeling fortunate that our home sustained no damage and that our inconvenience was short-lived. Emergency preparedness is not just a cliché.


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