With hurricane season fast approaching, individuals in vulnerable areas are preparing for the possibility of an active hurricane season. Last year was a particularly active season that affected the Caribbean and most of the Gulf Coast areas. As health care providers, nurses are particularly affected due to our responsibilities to both our patients and families as well as ourselves. This can be not only physically stressful, but also emotionally taxing on the individual.
In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas/Louisiana coastal areas and caused massive flooding, damage, and fatalities. The Texas Medical Center in Houston sustained flooding that stranded many hospital staff and patients for several days while the hurricane lingered in the area.
Heidi Aghajani is a nurse employed in the Houston area who spent six days working at the hospital during Hurricane Harvey while also being responsible for her family at home. She shares her story and expresses how she was affected during our interview.
What do you think went well with the hurricane preparation efforts of the hospital?
The hospital constantly informed staff of the hurricane via text messages, emails, and even huddles with managers about what’s happening, what to expect, and the time frame of when to expect it.
When did that start?
It started probably about 4-5 days before we knew the hurricane would hit.
When did your hospital notify you that you would need to come in as the ride-out team?
They notified us that Saturday before the storm hit Houston.
For the preparation, how many days’ worth of clothes, food, etc. did they tell you all to bring?
We were told to bring 4 days’ worth of clothes and food.
How long were you assigned to the hospital following Hurricane Harvey’s landfall?
We ended up staying for six days.
Were there any specific preparations your unit used that were particularly helpful?
They stockpiled patient supplies such as syringes and medications days in advance to last through the hurricane because they knew we would not get supplies.
Have you experienced any other natural disasters since becoming a nurse? If so, how would you compare that experience to your experience with Hurricane Harvey?
I was a nurse during Tropical Storm Allison where everything flooded badly so I would say that this time around the Medical Center itself was much more prepared with the underground doors and shutting streets down.
Explain your feelings regarding the uncertainty of the condition of your family, home, while you were at the hospital?
There were a lot of emotional breakdowns; a lot of people cried. The first couple of days were good, but about the third or fourth day it got very emotional. If you called your family and they didn’t answer or if you heard something on the news about an area that your family was in it just became very stressful and a lot of nurses really had some long periods of just crying; just wanting to get out and wanting to be with their families.
Do you feel that these emotions could have interfered with a nurse’s ability to care for their patients?
I don’t think we would admit that, but we did offer each other breaks during our shifts to get some alone time. I ended up on night shift so we kind of traded off letting people nap and just get away and just take moments because during the daytime a lot of people could not sleep because of the helicopters and the tornado threats.
Did you view news coverage of the damage of Hurricane Harvey during the storm? If so, how did that affect you or your colleagues?
Yes, we watched it nonstop. We were obsessed with watching it actually. It was on every TV on our unit and if you saw an area that was close to your family it really affected people. You would hear nurses say, “Oh my God, my son is in that area” or “That’s were my family is staying.” It was sad.
Did you personally have a conflict with your responsibilities as a nurse and your responsibility to your family?
Yes. You’re going to make me get emotional [with tears in eyes]. Yes, the conflict was: do I stay home and take care of my family, or do I perform my duty as a nurse and take care of my patients? I knew that my son would be with my family who would take care of him just as I would, so I found comfort in that and I was able to just be a nurse.
Were there other nurses on your unit whose family had to evacuate, and were they aware of the evacuation?
Yes. We had a nurse that learned that her husband and mother were evacuated off their roof while she was working and had to be taken to a shelter. She was very emotional.
Do you feel better prepared for any future natural disasters having experienced Hurricane Harvey? Why or why not?
Yes. I know now what needs to be in my disaster bag for real [laughing].
Will you volunteer as part of the predesignated ride-out team again? Why or why not?
I think I would because my son is older, and I would hate for someone who has a younger child to have to do that, but yes, I would.
Is there anything you would have done differently if you could?
Yes, I would have planned my bag better. I ran out of personal supplies, clothes, and food. I would have probably stockpiled my locker days before.
Any additional tips for other fellow RNs regarding how to personally prepare as a ride-out team member during a hurricane?
No one can prepare you or train you on how to handle the fear you will feel in your heart and the long days of relentless worry. But the same patients I was there to take care of, ironically, in a way took care of me. It’s amazing how grateful they were that we were there for them. That helped me focus on my duties and remind myself that this is what nursing is all about. We don’t run from it. We run to it. This is who we are.
Hearing nurse Heidi’s story only reminds us how amazing our nursing profession is. Nurses will continue to perform during natural disasters, but we must also remember that they too are going through this experience. They have family and friends out in the community that they cannot help. They are experiencing emotions that they will never allow their patients to see. They are having thoughts in their minds on whether they made the right decision on being a nurse or a loved one. But this is what nursing is all about. This is who we are, and this is what we do.