In Treatment, In Houston, In the Storm

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    Description of my personal experience with my husband's long-term hospitalization including time spent as inpatient during Hurricane Harvey and what it was like to be a family member during that time; drawing on my experience with public health preparedness for disaster situations.

    In Treatment, In Houston, In the Storm

    My husband Tony has been hospitalized at MD Anderson in Houston for the past 6 weeks; easily the most agonizing time of both of our lives. I found myself looking at the nursing staff through the eyes of the patient's family rather than my most familiar role as nurse and provider. The past weeks have been punctuated by an air ambulance ride across the country, close encounters with death, excruciating days in the ICU, and chemotherapy treatments combined with their associated ills. Our six weeks of misery were capped by a visit from Hurricane Harvey, which has turned so many lives upside down.

    As we watched from our hospital window, Hurricane Harvey began bearing down on Houston and the surrounding area. Hospital preparations for the impending storm soon became apparent to those waiting anxiously inside. We were advised that only one guest would be allowed to remain in the hospital and that no one (staff or guests) would be allowed to enter or leave the hospital once the storm struck. As the storm drew close, nurses came to work toting their suitcases and personal belongings as they had been told to be prepared to stay for multiple days. Cots were set up and waiting room couches became beds for employees. The torrential rain that began Friday night continued throughout Saturday.

    By early Sunday, the lobby had taken on water and the streets surrounding the hospital became rivers leaving stranded vehicles in their place; essentially cutting it off from the outside world. Floodgates (massive steel doors barricading entrances) were put into place to help hold the water back. Multiple elevators became non-functioning. The frequent medical helicopters that flew by our hospital window morphed into Coast Guard helicopters.

    Normally MD Anderson is a very hectic place crowded with distinguished physicians and scientists, dedicated nursing professionals and staff, and cancer patients from all corners of the earth. It is an enormous complex consisting of multiple buildings connected by sky bridges and seemingly endless hallways including even a hotel and post office. Those seeking care here are bound by a common bond~the hope that cancer can be eradicated from their bodies. The hurricane forced the outpatient part of the hospital (a vast portion of its existence) to shut down; leaving only those inpatients and their few family members inside its walls along with the devoted clinical and support staff who were part of the "ride-out team." Family members were given rubber bracelets to wear for identification.

    My background in public health has included much training on emergency preparedness~now I was being given a first-hand view of it in action, although a passive one. You don't have to think too hard to realize that since no vehicles were able to reach the hospital that supplies, especially perishables, would be used up at some point. Every day patients received letters from hospital administration attempting to calm fears and advise them of emergency plans. Nurse managers personally came to our room specifically to answer questions and to reassure us that inpatient care would not be compromised.

    MD Anderson is well-known for its excellent "Room Service" and actually unbelievably delicious hospital food. Changes in the food supply very soon became evident as patient menus became much more limited though still containing many nutritious and appealing choices for those with poor appetites. Meals for staff and family members became a planned distribution~everyone was instructed what time to show up in the cafeteria for our allowed portions. After waiting in long, long lines everyone received the same meals of hot, nutritious food (for free)! Though it may not have been what we would have chosen to eat, I was most grateful to have a meal provided. I have to say that I have been very blessed in my life; never before having to worry about having enough to eat or where it would come from. For the first time I experienced the feeling of what it felt like to be completely dependent on the rations I was given rather than relying on my own resources.

    The nurses were obviously exhausted and short-staffed but remained chipper and upbeat. Even as Tony's night nurse became his day nurse the quality of care never suffered. Housekeeping staff worked tirelessly to maintain the level of cleanliness that is so very important for immunocompromised patients. Our housekeeper, unable to return to her home, confided that it was leaking badly. The selfless devotion of the entire hospital staff, both clinical and support, to maintain the level of quality care in an emergency situation was most admirable. Obviously, they left their own homes and families behind to provide necessary care for those unable to leave the hospital. As a family member and as a public health professional, I would like to express my gratitude for the emergency preparedness that was so much needed and executed so well.

    Karen Valk, FNP
    Last edit by Joe V on Jun 15, '18
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    About karenvalk, MSN, NP

    Many years spent as NP in Public Health, as well as hospital RN, school nurse, nurse aide, hospital and Red Cross volunteer.

    Joined: Sep '17; Posts: 6; Likes: 35

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  3. by   jeastridge
    Thank you so much for sharing from your personal experience. You helped us understand a little what it must have been like. So glad you and your husband are ok. Joy
  4. by   NutmeggeRN
    Wow! I hope you are weathering the storm(s). Thank you for sharing!