Lending a helping hand

Members of the Oregon Medical DIsaster Team unload supplies in Houma, La.<br>Photo contributed by Steve Myren

When Hurricane Gustav struck the Gulf Coast early last month, evacuees streamed away from the storm to safety at places inland. But some people, including four from Eastern Oregon, were headed in the opposite direction.

The Oregon Medical Disaster Team is a group of medical workers or law enforcement officers who respond to large-scale emergencies around the country.

"We all keep bags packed and ready to go," said Steve Myren, the undersheriff of Morrow County. "Usually, we have to be at the airport within six hours."

During Hurricane Gustav, 35 members of Oregon's team were sent to Texas, including Cindy Parks, a pharmacist at St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton, Greg Close, a foreman for the Morrow County Public Works, and Kelly Sullivan, a nursing supervisor at Good Shepherd Medical Center in Hermiston.

After the team commander, Dr. Helen Miller in Eugene, called the selected team members, they flew to Dallas and then drove to Marshall, Texas, where they set up a Federal Medical Station at East Texas Baptist University. Within four hours they were set up and ready for patients.

"It was pretty overwhelming, all the evacuees coming in, especially the elderly," Sullivan said. Hurricane Gustav was Sullivan's first deployment with the team. Although she knew what to expect, she said, she still was affected by the amount of people who arrived at the hospital. They were all living out of a bag, and some of them had just lost everything.

Sullivan saw one couple in Marshall who had been married for 70 years. They came to the station because the man's pacemaker wasn't working. When the team decided to send the man to a hospital, Sullivan said, the woman began to cry - she thought she would never see her husband again.

The team finally arranged for the couple to leave the station together, but Sullivan said it was hard not knowing what was going to happen to people once they left. Often, they had no homes to return to.

After a federal disaster team arrived to take over in Marshall, the Oregon team was sent east. They spent a night at the Louisiana State School for the Visually Impaired, which was closed because of the storm, then ended up in Houma, La.

The closer the team got to Houma, the more damage they saw. Power lines were down, debris cluttered the roads, and the local police department had imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

They set up a field hospital in the parking lot of a closed Winn-Dixie, which was a few miles from the Chaubert Medical Center, a hospital that was severely damaged by the storm.

When word spread that the team, assisted by the medical staff from the hospital, was seeing patients, a continuous flow of people started coming in.

Sullivan said they saw every kind of medical problem. A lot of people had skin rashes, she said, because of poison oak or poison ivy, but the team also saw open wounds and heart problems.

"We had one lady from Louisiana who needed mental health help because she was so devastated," Sullivan said. "A tree fell down on her house, and the only way she could get in was through a window. We treated her, and then she headed back to her house because she had no where else to go."

Most of the evacuated areas were without electricity or emergency services, and several were flooded, Sullivan said.

Myren said Houma was one of those towns where all roads leading out of it ended in a swamp. The weather was hot and humid, and the crew worked in several large tents that were cooled by two 12-ton air conditioners. Even with the air conditioners running, he said, the temperature in the tents hovered around 80 degrees.

The team ate MREs, or meals ready to eat, which were self-contained meals in enclosed heat packs.

Each team member had a job, and Myren's was operations chief.

"As problems come up, my job is to solve them," he said. "If a doctor needs an ultrasound machine, I find a way to get that accomplished.

Greg Close, Myren said, was the "MacGyver" of the group because he had an uncanny ability to come up with needed supplies.

Myren said seeing how positive people could be, even after they had lost everything, renewed his faith in humanity.

On one particular day, a local nurse's husbands showed up in his pickup with friends and ingredients to make jambalaya. The team rejoiced at the chance to eat real food.

"They truly had more important things to do than stop and cook for strangers, but they did it anyway," Myren said.

Myren said the team members had no hierarchy - everyone just helped out wherever they could.

"We had doctors here, who have been doing this for 12 years, sweeping out a tent," Myren said. "It's very much a team organization."

The most undersung piece of equipment in a disaster area, Myren said, is the automotive navigation system. While traveling on unmarked city streets or roads blocked by trees or fallen debris, often the only way out was with the help of the navigation system. Myren nicknamed his Helga.

"You did not argue with Helga," he said. "You did what she told you and she was right."

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