Back on Aug. 26, Jose Cortes, M.D., was looking forward to a relaxing Saturday evening at home. First he’d enjoy dinner with his family. Then he’d watch the highly anticipated boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor.
The pediatric critical care doctor had spent the previous night at MD Anderson’s Children’s Cancer Hospital in anticipation of potential flooding.
“Weather forecasters were predicting that Tropical Storm Harvey would deliver torrential downpours,” he explains, “so I wanted to stay close to my patients throughout the night, in case there was an emergency.”
But on Saturday the streets were still clear and the rain was light, so Cortes headed home for a break. By 8 that evening, however, rain began to fall and his street filled with water.
“I wasn’t too concerned because when my street floods, the water recedes quickly,” says Cortes. He continued watching the boxing match.
By midnight, Mayweather was declared the winner and Cortes prepared to head back to the hospital, where he’d again spend the night. As he stepped outside, he saw water, lots of water.
“It was all the way up my driveway and covering my yard,” he says. “I knew driving to the hospital would be impossible, but I needed to get to work. Patients and their parents were depending on me.”
So Cortes decided if he couldn’t drive, he’d walk.
“The only way to reach the hospital,” he says, “was with my own two legs.”
To avoid worrying his wife, Cortes waited until she fell asleep, then quietly retrieved a hooded raincoat and water shoes from the hall closet.
As he exited the front door, his daughter handed him a lantern.
“What a sight I must have been,” Cortes chuckles. “I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, a long raincoat and swim shoes.”
In one hand he clutched a plastic garbage bag containing dry clothes. In the other he gripped the lantern, which he held high above his head as he set out after midnight on the 8-mile trek to the hospital.
Cortes walked slowly through flooded residential streets, scooting his feet along the pavement to feel for hidden dangers like uncovered manholes.
“I didn’t want to be swallowed into the sewer,” he says.
Wading through an unending stretch of dark water, Cortes couldn’t tell where streets ended and yards began, so he hugged the curb for guidance. A curve to the left or right meant he’d reached an intersection.
Houses he passed appeared to be floating on an ocean. Every so often, he'd see a homeowner curiously gazing at him from a dimly lit window, “probably wondering what on Earth I was doing.”
Eventually, Cortes emerged onto Chimney Rock Road, a typically busy Houston thoroughfare. He pressed forward through waist-high water, straddling the highest point, the middle. He marveled at how strange it felt to “own” the road that normally hosts nonstop, fast-moving traffic.
Turning onto Bissonnet, then Bellaire – two more main arteries – brought him closer to MD Anderson, and nearby Brays Bayou. He worried about snakes.
“I don’t like snakes,” he says, “especially water moccasins and copperheads.”
Nervously, he stole quick glances at the draining battery on his cell phone as his daughter repeatedly called, frantic for updates. He assured her he was OK, and trudged forward.
When he arrived at Interstate 610, he half-walked, half-swam under the freeway. He counted seven cars that had stalled in the high water below the underpass. They were now flooded and abandoned by their owners.
For another hour, Cortes continued his waterlogged hike until finally he could see the lights of MD Anderson two blocks ahead. Just as he entered the home stretch, a terrifying lightning bolt ripped through the sky, followed by a roar of thunder and a torrential downpour.
“I could barely see,” he recalls.
Two-and-a-half hours after he left home, Cortes walked into the hospital, drenched from head to toe.
Heading straight for the pediatric floor, he sloshed through the hallways and ignored the stares of curious onlookers. When he arrived, nurses were shocked, then relieved, to see him.
“I told them, ‘Sometimes you have to do whatever it takes,” he says.
After a shower and a change of clothes, Cortes entered the pediatric intensive care unit where he checked on patients, reviewed their latest lab results, answered questions from parents, and worked with nurses to develop a plan of care designed for each hospitalized child for the remainder of the night. The next morning, he and his colleagues attended a group meeting. A fully assembled team of doctors, nurses and other health professionals was on hand to care for the 17 hospitalized pediatric patients during the flood. The team included pediatric oncologist Cesar Nunez, M.D., hematologists-oncologists Nidra Rodriguez, M.D. and Jessica Foglesong, M.D., medical resident Tomaj Alban, M.D., and Cortes, a critical care physician.
“All areas were covered,” says Cortes, who remained at the hospital three more days until he was relieved on Tuesday night.
When he finally returned home, his wife, Fiorella, greeted him at the door.
“When I heard what my husband had done, I was relieved he’d made it, but I wasn’t surprised,” says Fiorella, who’s known her husband since high school. “Medicine is his calling. He’s totally dedicated to his patients.”