VA Provides Silver Lining Among Dark Clouds of Hurricane Harvey

By Annette M. Boyle

HOUSTON—As Hurricane Harvey bore down on the Texas coast, the VA geared up to support veterans and staff through the storm and its aftermath. As a result, critical staff stayed in place, emergency services continued and call lines remained open, even as the region experienced unprecedented flooding.

And, as the water flowed back to the sea, mobile units and relief staff rolled in.

Texas National Guard soldiers arrived in Houston to aid residents in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey,. Texas Army National Guard photo by 1st Lt. Zachary West

More than 510,000 veterans live in the area affected by Harvey, and 175,000 of them receive medical care through the VA’s 115 facilities in the region, according to the agency.

As the storm loomed, “the VA Integrated Operations Center was activated to coordinate efforts from VA’s central office in Washington. Local and regional assets in Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana [were] also mobilized to respond and assist those VA facilities most impacted by the storm,” the VA said in an update.

The Michael E. DeBakey VAMC in Houston stayed open, which was fortunate for Matt Meloni, a former Army Ranger. Meloni had come into town from Oklahoma for prostate surgery on Aug. 28. With the hurricane’s arrival, he expected to wait for a few days in his hotel. The night the storm came ashore, the sudden onset of significant abdominal pain made him realize he had to get to the hospital quickly. He waded 2 miles through chest-high water to have an appendectomy, according to a VA blog post.

“I came here in the middle of a weather event where it would not be reasonable to get the level of service I was provided,” Meloni said. “I came here in the middle of a hurricane, got laparoscopic surgery in the middle of the night from an amazing surgeon here. … There’s no private entity that could have done this better.”

The surgeon who cared for Meloni, Christy Chai, MD, chief of general surgery and surgical oncology, explained that some staff had prepared to stay through the hurricane. “As a hospital, we were well prepared in anticipation of these emergencies.”

The DeBakey VAMC cardiology team all stayed on-site from the storm’s arrival on Friday through at least Tuesday. “We performed cardiac caths, stents, pericardiocentesis, pacemaker placement, transesophagel echocardiograms as if nothing along the lines of a major hurricane and flooding was taking place right outside our doors,” explained Anita Deswal, MD, the center’s chief of cardiology.

The Houston VAMC not only had 700 staff in-house in preparation for the storm, it also brought in some of its most vulnerable veterans. The spinal cord injury (SCI) unit typically makes house calls to check on veterans with spinal injuries, but, knowing that the hurricane would make those visits impossible and put some of their patients at risk, they created emergency safety plans for some and brought others into the SCI unit. That brought the unit up to 35 occupied beds, with most of the patients on life-assisting equipment.

1 2 3

Share Your Thoughts