When a natural disaster such as a hurricane strikes our area, which most will agree has been too often in recent years, folks have learned to prepare ahead of time, which means stocking up on food and water, securing outdoor items, fueling vehicles and generators and so forth. For many who live in vulnerable housing, preparing for an oncoming disaster means finding secure shelter, which local emergency preparedness personnel have done an outstanding job of providing.
Imagine for a moment, however, that in addition to living in vulnerable housing, you or a loved one also has a fragile medical condition. You might have concerns about moving to a large facility for shelter with hundreds of other people. Such shelters are great for providing for basic needs such as food, water, and a safe place to sleep for otherwise healthy people during disaster conditions, but they are not ideal places to serve those with special medical needs.
Fortunately, medical and emergency medical personnel in Robeson County have learned through Hurricanes Matthew and Florence that special needs shelters are a necessity and that Robeson Community College can be a contributing partner during these times.
Robeson Community College Emergency Medical Science Program Director Eric Freeman received a call on Thursday during the week of the storm that such a shelter was needed. Freeman immediately forwarded the message to EMS Clinical Coordinator Toby Carter, who in turn went into action set up a shelter in RCC’s Health Sciences building in less than three hours prior to the arrival of the first evacuees.
Over the next nine days more than 30 volunteers served more than 20 patients in the shelter, including those needing injected medications, some requiring advanced airway management, and some suffering from recurrent seizure disorders. Many of these patients were bedbound. Some already had infections and others had open wounds where dressings needed to be changed regularly, which put them at higher risk for infection, especially if they were around a lot of other people as they would have been in a regular shelter.
During Hurricane Matthew similar patients were served in traditional shelters and medical and emergency medical personnel realized that they could be better served in a centralized location. In addition to providing better care, the special shelter “was much better resource management,” according to Carter.
The Health Sciences building at Robeson Community College is a relatively new building, having been completed in 2006. The building was designed and equipped to be used as an emergency shelter, if needed. The imaging equipment in the radiography labs and the respiratory therapy equipment in respiratory labs are all fully functioning. Beds and diagnostic equipment in nursing labs allow those rooms to serve as patient rooms and the surgical technology department is equipped to serve as a functioning operating room with an operating table and scrub stations.
Fortunately, no one required surgery during their nine-day stay in the special needs shelter, but more than 20 patients did have their medical needs attended while weathering Hurricane Florence. Volunteers serving patients included doctors, nurses, medical students, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, nurse practitioners, and students in RCC’s Nursing, Respiratory, and EMS programs.
Carter acknowledged support from RCC administrators, maintenance personnel, Southeastern Health, Med 1 and Robeson County Department of Social Services. Carter added that his mantra to students used to be, “This is why we train,” but that going forward he will add to that, “Our best part is our people.”
Dennis Watts is a public relations spokesman for Robeson Community College.