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Hurricane Harvey Response: Notes from the field

A man is getting off of a bus

South Texas nurse, Joel Gutierrez, who works in the Spinal Cord Injury Center, is all smiles as he touches back down on the campus after a two week deployment supporting the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, Texas after Hurricane Harvey. (VA photo by Steve Goetsch)

By Steve Goetsch
Friday, September 22, 2017
A word many Veterans are familiar with, deployment, was experienced by a couple dozen South Texas employees. The staff deployed to the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, Texas, after the city was left flooded. Their response was orchestrated from a request for specialized personnel to provide relief and backup for Houston staff who desperately needed relief to assess their own damage from Hurricane Harvey. One of those specialists was nurse Joel Guttierez, who works with a special population of Veterans in South Texas' Spinal Cord Injury Center. These are some of his observations and experiences.

Day 1.
Priscilla and I had an unexpected sendoff from Audie Murphy VA upper management, staff, and friends.  Seeing all the support from our facility made me proud to represent our facility.  We were off to unexpected conditions and an uncertain work environment.  I packed an emergency radio, CB’s for Priscilla and myself, a police scanner, and a hammer in case I had to break my way to a patient.  I was prepared to say the least.  

Coming into Houston’s Michael E DeBakey VA I was amazed by the size of the building and the number of patient’s filling its hallways.  As we stood in the entry way of the VA I noticed five white coat wearing staff members jobbing outside.  I wondered to myself, “What happened?  Was there an emergency?  Did I miss something?”  A few minutes later those same five white coats casually walked back into the building and up the elevators.  I thought to myself, “Weird!”  We were eventually greeted by the chief of police who escorted us to the 4th floor for in processing.  On the 4th floor I saw those same five white-coated staff members waiting to inprocess us.  Turns out they were senior nurse leadership.  I asked them why they were jogging outside.  I was told they were so excited that we had arrived they jogged out to greet us.  Not knowing what we looked like or who we were they jogged right past us.

Day 2.
The genuine gratitude from staff and patients made the decision to leave my family back home worthwhile.  My mindset was providing the best patient care capable and helping the nursing staff deal with the various stresses from being over worked as well as giving them the opportunity to deal with property damages caused by the storm.  The nursing staff from spinal cord 1B unit was warm, welcoming, and genuine.  They quickly made me feel part of their spinal cord family.  The patients were equally welcoming and extremely grateful for the help.

Day 3.
Patients were excited to see me.  Requesting me by name.  I was back in the grove of patient care.  I remembered how much I enjoy working with this population of veteran.  I made friends quickly.  My passions within the nursing profession are spinal cord injury and vascular access.

Day 4.
I visited Priscilla on her Spinal Cord unit, 1A.  I walked into an emergent situation.  The staff was working with an unresponsive patient.  The team was in the room.  The patient was a difficult stick who had no IV access.  The staff must have tried at least 16 times.   My shift had not started yet so I ran to the ED to borrowed an ultrasound machine.  PICC nurse mode turned on.  I went back to the room, and established an 18 G PIV on the first stick.  All labs were drawn, and the patient was ready for transport to one of the ICU’s.  I then made the LONG walk back to the ED to return the ultrasound.  Did I mention the Houston VA is huge.  Now the word was out…There was another PICC nurse available.  The goal for today was learning all the hallway shortcuts.

Day 5 through 12 
These days were the toughest I endured during this deployment.  Not because of the patient care or the staff encounters.  Each shift was filled with pot lucks and words of gratitude.  One nurse was so thankful because she could take the day off to deal with a collapsed roof.  Another nurse lost everything in her home.  Another nurse’s one-month old newly build home was completely flooded to the roof.  It was an honor to be in a position to help these individuals.

Day 13.
Goodbye.  The staff and patients were recruiting us to stay.  A few patients asked questions about transferring to Audie Murphy Spinal Cord.  Sorry guys.  There was another potluck in our honor on this day.  We were also given an open offer to transfer to Michael DeBakey.  The food incentive alone was enough to make me consider the offer.  I now have many restaurants dogeared for future trips to Houston.  My phone has new contacts with hopeful promises for long friendships.  The nurse patient bond you find on a spinal cord unit now extends to patients from a larger area of our great state.
My reflection of this deployment is that Hurricane Harvey’s effects on this area were unprecedented.  To witness the power of God working thru the hearts of volunteers to help strangers for no other reason than to be strength for someone who was weak, to be rest for someone who was tired, to be counsel for someone who was struggling, to be a friend to someone who needed a friend, this was a beautiful thing to witness.  Mother nature can be destructive at times, but human nature coming together is always productive.  We are VA.  We are strong.

Thanks to all of the staff who deployed to relieve our fellow colleagues across the VA network and to maintain healthcare for our Veterans in some of their greatest times of need.


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