An outpouring of heroics in the face of Hurricane Harvey's epic flooding
There are countless examples of sacrifice and solidarity shown by the MD Anderson team before, during and after Hurricane Harvey that underscore the complete dedication of the institution’s doctors, nurses and employees to caring for patients. There are many more stories than can be printed here, but the following are just a few reports of the selfless acts and complete cooperation shown across the workforce during the storm.
Chair couldn’t drive to work, but was driven to help patients
John Heymach, M.D., Ph.D., awoke on Aug. 27 to an unsettling sight. His street was filled with knee-deep water.
“Newscasts were reporting that much of Houston had flooded overnight,” he says.
Heymach, chair of Thoracic Head and Neck Surgery and a leader of the Lung Cancer Moon Shot™, loaded a backpack with a change of clothes and headed to MD Anderson on foot.
“I live nearby,” he says, “but driving was out of the question.”
As he walked, the water level went from knee-deep to thigh-deep. By the time he made it to MD Anderson, it was chest-deep.
Water sprayed high into the air from drains that had lost their manhole covers.
Heymach was careful to make his way around them.Once inside, he showered and began working around the clock with colleagues to care for patients. After three days and nights on duty, he finally was able to return home for a full night’s sleep.
Even a power outage couldn't stop patient care during Harvey.
When an electrical outage shut down MD Anderson’s Bay Area location southeast of Houston, employees quickly arranged for patients to receive care at the cancer center’s Sugar Land campus, just southwest of the city.
After relocating, the Bay Area team contacted patients to reschedule appointments.
Those with critical conditions were seen at the Sugar Land location, and appointments for those with non-urgent needs were pushed back a few days until power was restored.
“It was amazing to see how all our employees worked closely with the Sugar Land team to continue caring for our patients,” says Joan Farmer, operations coordinator at MD Anderson’s Bay Area location. “We’re grateful to Sugar Land for welcoming us and making us feel at home.”
The week following Hurricane Harvey’s unwelcomed arrival, Stephen Hahn, M.D., deputy president and chief operating officer, visited the institution’s Houston-area locations in the Bay Area, Sugar Land, The Woodlands, and Katy to thank employees for their support, dedication and hard work.
“Our Houston-area locations have really stepped up to help provide uninterrupted care for our patients, particularly knowing how difficult it’s been for some patients to travel to the main campus,’’ said Hahn. “We thank them for their tremendous support, even when so many of their own staff have been impacted by the storm.’’
A lone nephrologist in the storm
Kapil Mahajan, M.D., a rotating fellow in Nephrology, moved to Houston from Cleveland in July and had been working at MD Anderson for just a month when Hurricane Harvey hit. Paged on Sunday morning about a patient who was seriously ill and needed dialysis, Mahajan left his home in Sugar Land, just southwest of Houston, and headed to the hospital.
As he approached MD Anderson, Mahajan’s Honda CRV began taking on water and he had to abandon his vehicle.
“I grabbed a small bag with some important papers and my passport, but I didn’t have time to get my stethoscope, phone charger and credit cards,” says Mahajan, who arrived on campus soaked and barefoot, having lost his shoes during his swim to safety.
An Emergency Center nurse found him a dry set of scrubs and a pair of socks meant for patients, which Mahajan wore until Monday afternoon when he was able to catch a ride home. In retrospect, he remembers the biggest challenge he faced was having to constantly borrow a phone charger so he could keep in touch with his supervisors.
“I had some 35 to 40 patients on my list and about 20 of them needed dialysis between Sunday and Monday,” says Mahajan. “So, in a way it was good I was there because no other nephrologist was able to make it into the hospital.”
Luckily, Mahajan’s wife had evacuated to Dallas to ride out the storm with family, and their home didn’t flood. However, the young family’s unpacked possessions, which were in a storage unit that flooded, didn’t fare so well.
Mahajan remains philosophical about his adventure and the material things he lost in the flood.
“Being new, it was challenging, especially at a time like this emergency, but everyone was very nice and supportive while helping the patients,” Mahajan says.
“Other than that, the rest of our things can be bought again.”
Most importantly for the young doctor, the patient he originally had been paged about was doing better after dialysis.
Nurse finds comfort zone in caring
Leukemia nurse Simon Coronado knew if he went in to work the night Hurricane Harvey arrived in Houston, his house on Brays Bayou might flood while he was gone. But with his wife’s encouragement, he packed a bag and reported to the hospital to care for the patients who needed him.
The next day he got the phone call he’d feared: Water had invaded his house.
“At that point, I just wanted to crawl out of my skin because I couldn’t get to my family,” he says. Fortunately, he was able to connect with a neighbor, who rescued Coronado’s wife and four sons from chest-deep water.
“Once they were safe, it lifted all the weight off my shoulders,” Coronado says. “Caring for patients put me back into my comfort zone.”
After working 12-hour shifts for the next few days, Coronado finally made it home to begin gutting his house.
“It’s going to take a little bit of work,” he says. “But we can get through anything.”
From kayaking to calming nerves
When Tim Ford saw the floodwaters rising, he knew it wouldn’t be easy to get toMD Anderson for his shift as a patient services coordinator. But the South Houston resident suspected it would be even harder for many of his co-workers, so he strapped his kayak to his truck and drove as far as he could. Parking on Main Street, he began kayaking toward the hospital, picking up a Memorial Hermann doctor on the way. The two battled currents from the bayou but eventually arrived safely. Ford – shown here with Patient Services Coordinator Gigi Taylor – pitched in where he could, making sure care teams had everything they needed, and talking to patients.
“Patients were understandably nervous. They were watching the news and seeing what was happening around Houston,” he says. “I wanted to make sure they knew we were here for them and could take good care of their needs.”
Braving the floodwaters to help his co-workers
On the morning of Aug. 27, Pharmacy Technician Van Ly realized his co-workers needed help. So he loaded his bicycle into his minivan and set out for MD Anderson from his home in northwest Houston.
Though there had been a break in the rain, many roads and bridges between Ly’s home and the hospital were impassable, and he ran into high water near the Interstate 610 and Highway 290 interchange. He couldn’t drive any farther, and his bike was useless, so he waited. Eventually, a large truck driven by some good Samaritans stopped and offered him a lift.
Rather than turn back, Ly grabbed his bike, hopped into the back of the truck and asked for a ride to the hospital. About two miles from MD Anderson, they encountered waist-deep water that proved too much for the truck.
So Ly got out and rode or pushed his bike the rest of the way, arriving around 3 p.m., much to the surprise and relief of his concerned co-workers. Wasting no time, Ly changed into dry scrubs and began a 12-hour shift.
“At the top of my head at the time, I was thinking about my co-workers and our patients,” Ly says. “I just wanted to contribute my little effort to help. We are MD Anderson, right?”
UT leaders inspired by teamwork during storm
The University of Texas System Chancellor Bill McRaven visited MD Anderson on Sept. 6 to express his admiration and to thank the MD Anderson community for pulling together to care for patients and each other during Hurricane Harvey.
“I can’t help but be inspired,” he said as he met with leaders who manned the Incident Command Center, applauding the “remarkable diversity of background, talent and experience” that shaped MD Anderson’s response to the crisis.
He urged leaders to build upon the dedication shown by teams that “stepped up in the middle of disaster, and will stand up again … give them the opportunity to showcase their skills and talents and you will take this institution in a direction you’ve never seen before.”
Raymond Greenberg, M.D., Ph.D., executive vice chancellor for health affairs at UT System, also expressed his gratitude as he presented a poster signed by UT System employees in Austin to show their support for MD Anderson, one of UT System’s 14 institutions.
“How you handled the situation under these circumstances was beyond belief,” Greenberg said. “You make us so very proud.”
Karen Lu, M.D., senior vice president and chief medical officer ad interim, told the UT System leaders that pushing decision-making to the local level contributed to the successful response and a quick return to normal operations in most areas 10 days after the storm.
By that time, operating rooms were functioning at 80% capacity, Radiation Oncology was at 100% and the Ambulatory Treatment Center was at 110%.
“It’s important to get these three theaters back and operational’’ for the sake of the 13,000 patients we see each week, Lu added.
On call: Employees volunteer to answer phones during hurricane recovery
Realizing how important it is for patients to hear a reassuring voice, more than 30 employees from MD Anderson’s Patient Access Services department volunteered to man phones in the days immediately following Hurricane Harvey.
The dedicated team answered more than 3,100 calls from worried patients and family members who were trying to determine whether they should reschedule appointments, how they could get needed medications, whether clinics were open, and more.
“It was important to patients to get their questions answered,” says Jennifer Kennedy-Stovall, director of Patient Access Support Services.
Staff members taking calls also were surprised at patients’ concerns for saff members' well-being.
“Patients were asking, ‘How are you?’ which is funny because normally our calls are all about the patient and what we can do for them,” says Kennedy-Stovall, who pointed out that such care and concern rallied employees and reinforced the importance of the extra service they provided to patients.
There are no ‘trivial’ acts of kindness
All 5 feet of Yun Shin Chun, M.D., turned frustration into action with a waterlogged bike ride to the MD Anderson campus.
At home and feeling powerless to help in the aftermath of Harvey, Chun, an associate professor of Surgical Oncology, volunteered on Tuesday, Aug. 29, to join the cancer center’s ride-out team. This gave her the opportunity to deliver much-needed supplies to co-workers and to see a patient she was concerned about.
“On Sunday, I spoke with Erica Nichols in the Welcome Center and knew they’d been without safe access to cooked or fresh food since Friday,” Chun says. “I also knew the nurses and patient service coordinators on P6 had stayed in the hospital for more than 96 consecutive hours to care for patients. Their director had waded in on Sunday.”
So Chun packed a backpack with chicken nuggets, nutrition bars, apples, underwear and socks. Having narrowly missed damage to her car trying to get to work during 2016’s Tax Day Floods, Chun was reluctant to drive to campus, and instead chose to ride her bike the four miles from her home to MD Anderson.
She found the water level low on Holcombe Boulevard, and up to her knees on side streets, but she was able to make it to the hospital.
“My actions were trivial compared to so many others,” says Chun of her efforts. Still, for her patient recovering from extensive surgery, and the Welcome Center staff, her thoughtfulness meant a great deal.
Blue jackets and black coffee lift spirits during recovery
Coffee was a hot commodity the week after Hurricane Harvey.
A cadre of 20 MD Anderson volunteers – known for their trademark blue jackets and friendly service – provided coffee cart service to patients, their families and employees as the cancer center worked to regain full operational status.
“Coffee was one of the most sought-after items during ride-out and recovery,” says Brandon Floyd, director of Volunteer Services and Merchandising. “Patients and staff were excited to see the volunteers offering complimentary coffee, hot chocolate, tea and lemonade in clinic waiting areas and on some hospital floors.”
Nearly 1,000 on-site, trained volunteers donate their time to MD Anderson each year.