Practitioner assists on disaster response
STEUBENVILLE — Michael Beach, a nurse practitioner from Steubenville, faced logistical challenges in providing federal medical assistance in Florida after Hurricane Irma, but leaving the disaster scene proved to be the hardest part of his 15-day experience.
He said, “Although we are always anxious to go home at the end of a deployment, leaving is always the hardest thing for me to do. You get to know the people. You know that you are helping and, as much as you want to go home and sleep in your own bed, be with your family, have a home-cooked meal, it is very hard to leave the folks behind who you know are in need.”
Beach, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Nursing, has been a member of a Disaster Medical Assistance Team for seven years. He is assigned to the PA 1 Team, one of several teams organized by the National Disaster Medical System.
During a deployment, he said, “You’re kind of on adrenaline the whole time you’re there. It’s really fulfilling. It’s marvelous work. I love going on deployment with them. … I was tired. It is exhausting, but I love it. It’s a really great experience every time that I go.”
For the Irma assignment, team members met at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., and were flown to Florida on a Department of Defense C-17 Galaxy jet cargo plane. Beach said, “After being staged in Orlando, we were bused down to the Lower Keys. That became somewhat difficult because they got hit pretty hard. Fuel became an issue for the buses. We had to work out strategy for getting down there.”
Upon arrival in the Lower Keys, they relieved a team from Hawaii that had set up hospital tents across the street from the only hospital in the area. A small emergency room was the only part of the hospital still open after the hurricane.
“We saw 40 patients a day, mostly on daylight. I was the lead on night turn,” he said. “We saw patients with lacerations, belly pain, some traumas, just like a hospital. We discovered all of the insulin had spoiled in the area because of lack of power and refrigeration. There was no insulin except what was in our cache. We saw a lot of diabetic patients. We stayed until the hospital was back up and running.”
Patients presented a mixture of ordinary illnesses and storm-related injuries. Beach said, “I teach a disaster course at the school of nursing. One thing I tell students — and it’s panned out at every disaster — there is always a mix of people who cut themselves trying to cut up trees, who have a twisted ankle because something fell on them, always a mix of that with regular patients that a normal ER sees every day.”
The team always takes generators, extensive trauma equipment, monitors, oxygen and medication to treat patients on site. During this crisis, patients with more serious issues were transported by helicopter or ambulance to a hospital in Miami, he said.
He said, “Our team was also backfilled with other teams from Ohio, Virginia and New York. This was an all-hands-on-deck situation. Members from our team in August backfilled other teams and went to Houston. Some of them came with us to Florida.”
Four medical teams were deployed to Florida and other teams were sent to Puerto Rico to assist victims of Hurricane Maria, he said. His team is on call for December, but Beach and 14 others are slated to join a team from New York to go to Puerto Rico in early November.
“PA 1’s motto is Semper Gumby — Always Flexible,” he quipped.
The team has between 35 and 40 people, but not everyone is deployed at the same time. Teams include emergency medical technicians, paramedics, nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians’ assistants, physicians, logistics staff, commander, deputy commander, operations leader and administrative officers.
“You always have problems on a deployment, tearing down tents, being short on supplies. You have to conserve water, or it’s not the best food,” he said. “You’ve just got to step back and say, ‘Well, it’s a disaster.’ You’ve got to put up with whatever you’re doing. You just do. My team is phenomenal. We take care of each other.”
On the team, he said, “There are no egos. We all work. Everyone from physicians to EMTs to the logistic team to leaders, all are working to put up tents, move things around. It’s a really great experience. It’s great people. It’s great to work with them and help others.”
Several medical teams have been deployed after major hurricanes this year. “It seems like it’s been a crazy fall. Every team across the country was on alert this fall,” he said. “It’s not a normal fall.”
Beach, who has participated in four deployments and a training mission, started the process to join the team in 2009. His first deployment was to Haiti in January 2010 after a major earthquake. The team ran a hospital tent on a golf course in Port-au-Prince and provided medical care for 50,000 to 60,000 people from a camp for displaced residents.
Later, Beach was deployed to Jupiter, N.J., after Hurricane Sandy and to Cape Canaveral, Fla., after Hurricane Matthew. He also spent a week in Anniston, Ala., for disaster response training.
Asked what prompted him to join the program, he said, “I’ve been involved with volunteer search and rescue for years, since 1990. It just seemed a logical choice to get involved in that aspect and expand that opportunity to help people to respond to disasters, to people in need.”
He added, “Generally you’re a member until you retire from the team or leave it because of jobs. There’s no term limit for this. We are temporary employees for the federal government.”
As an on-call month approaches, team members notify the administrative officer of their availability to serve. Beach said, “If something comes up, we’re put on alert, which means we might go. We were on alert from the end of August until a week or so into September.”
Team members have job protection during deployment. Beach said, “We’re under the same law that applies to National Guard or military reservists. If we get orders to go, we go. They (employers) have to hold our jobs for us until we get back … It’s a matter of turning in your order. The employer finds a replacement.”
As a teacher at Pitt, he said, “I start making arrangements to cover my classes, to make sure my responsibilities are going to be covered. I’m available by phone or email to my students.”
In recent years, team members were deployed to Los Angeles and to New York after floods. He said team members also went to Arizona to provide medical care and vaccinations to unaccompanied minors who were picked up after crossing the border between the U.S. and Mexico.