Healing in a Hurricane: local surgeon offers advice after deploying to disasters

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Now that we're in hurricane season, a local trauma surgeon is keeping a close eye on the storms. He is one of thousands of medical professionals on disaster teams that go into the danger zones to save lives and repair injuries.

After deploying to hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey and several other disasters, he has advice that can help all of us be better prepared to survive nature's fury.

When disasters strike, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and many states deploy what are called Trauma and Critical Care Teams and Disaster Medical Assistance Teams. Made up of medical professionals from communities across the country, they leave their families and friends for usually two week deployments.

Their job is to save as many lives as possible in some of the toughest conditions.

One of them is trauma surgeon Preston "Chip" Rich, who on a normal day works with Extant Healthcare, which manages trauma services at Chippenham Hospital.

He says his first trip into a disaster zone started with an eerie feeling.

"Everyone is leaving except for us and we're going in. That's a very strange feeling," said Rich.

It was Waveland, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina with a University of North Carolina medical team.

"What I was struck by was there was absolutely nothing there," he told us.

The team set up a mobile hospital in about twelve hours on a wiped out Kmart parking lot.

"As soon as we set the first tent up, an ambulance came by. Then a helicopter landed," Rich remembered. "There were streams of patients coming in. These people thought they had been forgotten about, that no one was coming."

Dr. Rich's first patient was one of the many people who had clung to treetops for dear life above the flood waters.

"He had eroded all the skin, and had become infected on top of that, because the water was very dirty," he said, describing the injuries.

Since then, Rich signed on with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, which has sent teams to many disasters, including hurricanes Sandy, Harvey and Maria. The teams are specially trained and coordinate with local hospitals, local government, and the military to treat thousands of injured people.

"I was operating in the middle of nowhere," Rich recalled. "Now it's set up very nicely. In fact, you can't tell, it looks very much like this," pointing to the trauma surgery room we were sitting in.

Rich says they often have to rough it in the same conditions as the community.

"We sometimes end up sleeping on concrete and water, in nooks, crannies, anywhere we can find. And we immerse ourselves in that community as they suffer. And we experience the pathos that they are living on a day to day basis," said Rich.

The teams also help evacuate patients, distribute food, and offer what comfort they can.

"Sometimes it means just giving them a bottle of water, and sometimes it means just holding their hand," said Rich.

Having seen people struggling to survive disasters, Rich says there are things you can do to help your family make it through.

First and foremost, he emphasizes the importance of following evacuation orders and advice from officials.  He also recommends gathering needed medications, a first aid kit, non-perishable food, bottled water, and flashlights with batteries.

He advises you to make sure you charge your cell phone, lap top or radio, so that you can get the latest information, call for help, or find a nearby shelter.

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