Marian Von-Maszewski’s training and experiencein crisis situations proved very valuable in her roleas an incident commander during Harvey
Anticipating heavy rains from Hurricane Harvey, Marian Von-Maszewski, M.D., tried to prepare her house for the worst. She moved her most important possessions upstairs and put tarps over furniture downstairs, in case any windows were to break. Her son was at her parents’ house. Her dog was at a co-worker’s house.
Armed with snacks and clothes, the assistant professor of Critical Care and Respiratory Care headed to MD Anderson on the Friday that the storm made landfall near Rockport, Texas.
“When it looked like there was a possibility the storm might come to Houston, I moved into my office, equipped to stay for a week,” she says. “The forecasts were changing, and we didn’t know what weather would come in at that point.”
An unexpected duty
When the storm arrived in Houston on Saturday night, Von-Maszewski wanted a closer look. From the hospital lobby, she could see the storm drains were backing up inside the floodgates. Record-setting rainfall was coming down, and there seemed to be no end in sight.
She took a video and sent it to Paul Mansfield, M.D., vice president for Acute Care Services, and Matt Berkheiser, Dr. PH, chief safety officer and associate vice president of Environmental Health Safety and Corporate Services, two members of the Incident Command structure, which makes high-level decisions during emergencies. Since earlier in the week, the group had been meeting several times a day via conference call to monitor the shifting forecasts. Now that the weather emergency they had planned for was a reality, they needed someone on-site to take the lead during the ride-out.
Von-Maszewski was in the right place at the right time.
“They both said, ‘It’s going to be you – you’re the incident commander – so you better start documenting,’” she says. “So I grabbed a notepad and started writing.”
For the first in-person meeting at the Incident Command Center, Von-Maszewski says there were six people in the room.
They took stock of the situation – “here’s where we are, we take care of patients, we take care of each other” – and no one hesitated, she says. They had to think ahead about what resources were available and who was on hand to help if there were power losses or a need to evacuate anyone.
They had to make decisions quickly.
Fortunately, Von-Maszewski had trained for emergency situations. It was an area of interest for her, and she was eager to respond when needed at MD Anderson. In medical school, she worked under legendary trauma surgeon James “Red” Duke, M.D., at UT Health and Memorial Hermann’s Level 1 trauma center.
“Dr. Duke was my mentor. I’d walk the hospital with him at all hours,” she says. “He taught me to be calm, remember what I know and move on. And to be kind under pressure, because yelling at someone during a crisis isn’t going to make things better. It’s all about the teamwork – and that’s what I saw here during Harvey.”
Her familiarity with MD Anderson also helped. Working in critical care and in intensive care has meant lots of emergency drills. In addition, she moonlighted with the institution’s Nocturnal Program, so she was used to working with the off-shift administrators and others who keep the place running overnight and on the weekends.
“I may have been incident commander, but I was not alone. The off-shift administrators, teams from Facilities Management, Materials Management, UT Police – they’re indispensable in an emergency like this, and they were all hands on deck,” she says. “Everyone helped as part of one team.”
Help at home
Teamwork got Von-Maszewski through the crisis she faced after returning home as well.
While she was busy at the hospital, her house had taken on a foot of water. Like so many people in the Houston area, she had to rip out sheetrock, deal with the insurance company, find contractors and determine how best to move forward.
“I saw such kindness with people offering to do whatever they could to help,” she says. “Friends from high school showed up. My co-workers showed up. Some people took home dishes to sanitize them for me. Things you need but don’t think about.”
Reflecting on the storm, Von-Maszewski says the experience was a reminder that staff at every level of the institution play a vital role in making MD Anderson successful.
“It was amazing to see our teams in action,” she says. “It’s so much more than taking care of patients. There are people who are here to take care of other employees and our buildings and so much more that you might not think about until you see it up close. What a great opportunity I had.”