By ~ Doug Bennett
While the Gainesville area was spared a direct hit from Hurricane Michael, University of Florida Health played a vital role in responding to the catastrophic damage in the Panhandle after the Category 4 storm struck on Oct. 10.
UF Health Shands Hospital began receiving its first patients from storm-damaged hospitals the day after the hurricane made landfall. The arriving patients were first brought to the emergency room with plans for rapid admission to hospital rooms, said Brandon Allen, M.D., medical director of the adult emergency department at UF Health Shands Hospital and an assistant professor in the UF College of Medicine’s department of emergency medicine.
“We had great collaboration with admissions and our other hospital services. We were ready to take on whatever came to us,” Allen said.
Several additional physicians were brought in to the emergency room to help expedite admissions. Wendy Swan, M.S.N., director of emergency services for UF Health Shands, added that additional staff from other departments were called in to help care for the 36 patients who ultimately arrived by air and ground units.
Before the storm hit, UF Health ShandsCair helicopters and flight crews based in Gainesville, Perry and Milton in the north central and Panhandle regions were repositioned for optimal response when the winds subsided. By midafternoon the day after the storm hit, ShandsCair flight crews had transported six patients from Panhandle hospitals to other facilities.
ShandsCair’s role also involved more than the flight crews: Because communications systems in the region were damaged, ShandsCair’s Med-Trans regional aviation manager was called on to coordinate the entire air medical response from the state’s Emergency Operations Center.
Meanwhile, UF Health emergency medicine physician Benjamin N. Abo, D.O., remotely directed a team of 80 people and five dogs assigned to Florida Task Force 1 Urban Search & Rescue Team. The team was near Panama City looking for people reported missing and assessing the local infrastructure, Abo said.
“Most people evacuated but there is a lot of devastation and a tremendous loss of infrastructure,” Abo said.
A group that provides fatality management services during disasters was also activated, said Bruce Goldberger, Ph.D., director of UF Health Forensic Medicine. The Florida Emergency Mortuary Operations Response System is managed by the UF College of Medicine’s department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine. It includes volunteers from around the state who assist with
mass fatalities when local resources are exhausted.
While these groups ramped up, UF Health ShandsCair pilot Brian Tison paused two days after Hurricane Michael ravaged the Panhandle to catch his breath and collect his thoughts.
Tison, who pilots the Gainesville-based ShandCair 1 medical helicopter, logged an 80-minute flight to Panama City immediately after the hurricane’s winds eased. He and the flight crew transported patients from Bay Medical Center to UF Health Shands Hospital and to a Pensacola hospital.
As Tison closed in on the Panama City airport, he saw houses with their roofs peeled off and outbuildings that were leveled. Farther south at Bay Medical Center, Tison found a usable helipad amidst the hospital’s partially skinned exterior. The roofs of many homes in a subdivision were gone, and probably 80 percent of nearby trees were down.
“It looked like a bomb went off. There wasn’t a leaf left on a tree anywhere,” said Tison, as he prepared for another 12-hour shift. “It was shocking. I was in awe of the sheer power of what that storm did.”
Ed Jimenez, CEO of UF Health Shands, said he was proud of the commitment of physicians, nurses, clinical staff and support teams.
“Our thoughts are with everyone directly impacted by this crisis,” Jimenez said. “We recognize our statewide responsibility and are always available to jump into action and serve the needs of our state during crises.”