Hurricane Harvey hit Houston just six weeks after Karen Lu, M.D., assumed the role of MD Anderson’s chief medical officer ad interim. The new position meant she was the “go-to” person for ensuring quality of care and patient safety at the hospital. So on the morning of Aug. 27, as thestorm was wreaking havoc on the city and surrounding area, she made her way to the cancer center – a trip that included wading eight blocks through floodwaters and a ride in a high-water emergency vehicle.
Lu joined 1,000 doctors, nurses and staff from all areas of the institution who were on-site to make sure there was no interruption or compromise in care for the hospital’s 538 inpatients during the storm. More than ever, Lu, who’s been with the cancer center for 18 years, saw the important role each and every member of the MD Anderson team played in helping the cancer center weather the storm.
“This emergency ride-out team included employees from clinical, housekeeping, facilities, dining services, security and so many others,” Lu says. “They coordinated efforts to deliver safe, quality care despite being on an island surrounded by floodwaters.”
While patients in the hospital were safely cared for, Harvey’s record-breaking rainfall was shutting down Houston and the surrounding area. Deep water cut off access to the hospital for many employees and patients in the days following the storm, and the institution was forced to suspend outpatient care for a few days. Lu explains this meant the approximately 13,000 weekly appointments – including those for surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments – were put on hold.
But the transition from ride-out to recovery didn’t take long. Under Lu’s leadership, the return to normalcy began long before the rain even stopped. By Monday, less than one day after Harvey blew into Houston, physicians who could safely make it to the hospital were asked to join the other members of the team on-site. And critical staff arrived the next day to help relieve the ride-out team. Treatments for patients needing urgent care and crucial surgeries were slowly begun on Wednesday. And just over a week after thestorm, the institution was both fully staffed and operational.
“We were very proud of how quickly we were able to get back up and running following the storm, thus getting our patients back on track with their treatment,” Lu says. “This was only feasible because of the outstanding teamwork and constant refinements we made to our emergency procedures and protocols.”
She credits MD Anderson employees’ team effort and lessons learned from emergency weather events in the past, such as 2001’s Tropical Storm Allison, in keeping facilities safe and ensuring a smooth recovery.
“Following Allison, we evaluated our needs and devised a plan that led to several important upgrades, such as adding more than 75 floodgates, relocating electrical equipment and installing submarine doors,” she says.
As with every storm, Harvey presented new opportunities to improve and refine response plans. With approximately 35% of its workforce impacted by storm-related damage, Lu says the institution saw the importanceof supporting employees.
“MD Anderson worked hard to be caring and supportive to its employees personally impacted by Harvey, including financial support through the Caring Fund, having FEMA on-site and offering alternative daycare through Bright Horizons when so many Houston-area schools were closed following the storm,” says Lu. “Past storms have harmed MD Anderson’s facilities and research; this one affected our people. I am so grateful to our committed staff for their dedication to our patients and for doing everything possible to ensure a safe recovery.”