Palmetto Health Richland emergency room doctor Steve Shelton’s days have gotten even busier as the hospital joins forces with federal, state and local agencies to provide medical care to patients affected by hurricanes in the Caribbean.
Palmetto Heath’s four hospitals are among more than a dozen regional facilities participating in the National Disaster Medical System. Under the federally coordinated disaster response, patients are being flown to Columbia Metropolitan Airport from Puerto Rico, devastated last week by Hurricane Maria, as well as St. Thomas and St. Croix, which were pummeled by hurricanes Maria and Irma. Patients are then triaged and dispersed to area hospitals.
Palmetto Health Richland received two patients Sunday.
“They were chronic health care issues that needed a higher level of care,” said Shelton, who is also Palmetto Health’s medical director for emergency preparedness. “You can’t go see your doctor. You can’t get your medication. You don’t have the electricity to maintain the medication that you have if it requires refrigeration. You start seeing a lot of chronic issues that become debilitating at that point, and they need additional assistance.
“You’ll have your chronic health care needs that are in the hospitals right now that need to leave, as well as the new needs. It could be some type of environmental thing — dehydration, some of the mild infectious diseases that can occur after a hurricane. We’re open for anything.”
Jeff Straub is in charge of making sure patients get to Shelton and other physicians. Four patients were flown into Columbia on Sunday, said Straub, system safety officer/emergency manager for Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System and the patient reception team coordinator for NDMS since 2006. Providence Hospital received the other two.
Straub said his team deals mainly with tertiary care patients — those who are already in hospitals who need to be moved out of harm’s way.
“Our goal at the end of the day is to get them to the best definitive care until we get them back to their home of record,” said Straub, stationed with a team of doctors and respiratory therapists at the Columbia airport. “Our goal at the airport is not to take care of patients. We need to get them in and get them out.”
To that end, Straub is in constant contact with Shelton and his physician counterparts, checking on availability of beds, ambulances and other necessities.
Straub said when his team receives a notification that a patient is on the way, it has “roughly about a four-hour window” to prepare for arrival. But with still-chaotic logistics ever-changing, nothing is set in stone.
“We were told (Sunday) there were no planned aircraft. Three hours later, we had four patients en route,” Straub said. “It’s very fluid. There are so many things happening on the islands.”
It’s also difficult to tell how long the NDMS effort will need to continue. Straub has told his team members to prepare for three to five days of deployment as part of a mission that could take from one to two weeks.
“We have staffing plans to support that,” he said. “If we’re still here on Friday, we’ll send that original team home and bring in a fresh crew.”
Shelton and his colleagues are prepared to help as many patients as necessary.
“We have a volunteer labor pool of folks that are willing to step up and come in to help out to make sure that we have appropriate staff for these individuals,” said Shelton, who has heard estimates of around 300 total medical evacuees. “In addition, we want to make them comfortable. They’re coming from a country where they potentially lost everything. We’ve increased our number of translators so that we make sure we can communicate with them to make sure that they understand what’s going on and we can effectively provide the good care that they need and provide a level of comfort.”