Lessons learned from past health crises

March 30, 2020

How we can become the best versions of ourselves.

As the threat of COVID-19 rages and everyone is worried about the future, it helps me to remember that past health crises have proven that these kinds of challenges also present an opportunity to be the best versions of ourselves. 

Fifteen years ago, I was serving in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina-where 25,000 people were being treated after massive flooding hit New Orleans and killed 1,200 people. 

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Fire alarms were going off nonstop, our disaster response team (New Mexico DMAT) and I hadn’t slept for over 36 hours, and we had very little information from the outside world about how long we’d be there and how many people would need care. We had an extremely limited capacity to evacuate patients; we were doing helicopter evacuations only. We were anxious about the escalating situation and our personal safety, but we also had a mission to accomplish – none of the people coming into the Superdome had anywhere to go and we were their only healthcare resource.

From this experience, our team learned that despite the anxieties we felt, they paled in comparison to those of the people we were treating. These people had just lost their homes and all their possessions and had no idea what tomorrow would bring. Yet they were also understanding and appreciative of any support we could give them. 

As we navigate our current public health crisis, and treat and cope with COVID-19, I encourage our caregivers across the country to remember that you’re not alone in being fearful and having anxieties. Share thoughts and anxieties with those around you. But also, when it’s needed, put those fears aside and reach out with hope and love for your colleagues and patients. We’re all in this together. Even our colleagues who aren’t here with us, who are working at home for the sake of social distancing, are doing community good. 

The lesson I learned from Katrina was this: When faced with disasters, people in general become more altruistic, more appreciative, and more mindful of the people around them. At times like this, you have to remember why you entered this field. You worked hard and were accepted into a school to learn a healthcare profession, and it helps to remember you have been long preparing to face something just like this.

When we were presented with the escalating impacts of the novel coronavirus, all our teams at Intermountain Healthcare quickly stood up to apply the system’s full capacity to help our community be ahead of this. We’ve very aggressively leaned into it and taken bold action in canceling elective surgeries, implementing social distancing, and working collaboratively with other healthcare systems and the government to protect our communities. I’ve been proud to see that.

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Disasters present daunting challenges, but when all the frustration of electronic health records and the confusion about billing goes away, you can be at the bedside of a patient who has nowhere else to turn. You can be there when others couldn’t or wouldn’t be there. We have the opportunity to become better as individuals and better as a healthcare system because of this.

 

Mark Shah, MD, is an emergency medicine physician who serves as medical director for disaster preparedness at Intermountain Healthcare. Dr. Shah managed the care of thousands of disaster victims after Hurricanes Frances (2004 in Florida and along the east coast) and Rita (2005 in the Gulf of Mexico) in addition to Katrina. He was deployed to help patients after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines, and Hurricane Harvey in 2017 in Texas and Louisiana.