FIU medical disaster response team called into action after Irma

Bridget Pelaez, RN trying to get some sleep after a long night in the ER.

After an exhausting 12-hour shift heading a dozen FIU-FAST (Florida Advanced Surgical Transport) team-members deployed after the storm, Bridget Pelaez found a cot at the FIU Emergency Operations center and hoped for a few hours of sleep.

“The Florida Department of Health asked us to assist West Kendall Baptist Hospital deal with a surge in emergency room patients,” said Pelaez, a nurse and paramedic.

Typically, after a storm, there is an increase in post storm injuries as people get hurt trying to clear debris. This is compounded by the fact that many doctor’s offices and other medical facilities are closed due to storm damage and power outages.

When the all-volunteer FIU team, six physicians, six nurses, and a paramedic arrived at West Kendall Baptist Hospital at 1:00 a.m., there were 92 patients waiting in the ER. By 3:45 a.m., only 30 remained, thanks in part to the extra hands. “We were able to allow the hospital’s assets to take care of the overwhelming numbers by freeing up some of their tasks,” Pelaez said. The team treated patients with lacerations, the flu, a possible stroke.

“We are extremely grateful for the support Florida International University gave us while West Kendall Baptist Hospital was dealing with the crisis of our hospital’s and emergency department’s volume far exceeding our capacity.  The teamwork, professionalism and camaraderie that the FIU-FAST team demonstrated allowed us to take care of our community and prepare ourselves for the next day’s flood of patients,” said Javier Hernandez-Lichtl, chief executive officer of West Kendall Baptist Hospital. “The
FIU-FAST initiative is a great program which provides essential patient care by a team of highly-skilled clinicians in dire situations.“

A key part of the FIU deployment is the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine’s mobile health center, a giant blue bus that normally serves patients in the Green Family Foundation NeighborhoodHELP™, the college’s cornerstone medical education and community outreach program. Two other mobile health centers and additional disaster medical equipment may be tapped for deployment to other hospitals and the Florida Keys.

“This is our medical school’s mission in action, and I think this proves you can use an institution of higher education to help a community become more resilient after a disaster, “said Dr. John A. Rock, founding dean and vice-president for health affairs.

Many of the team members still have damaged homes to tend to. They had to leave family, in some cases young children at home, but they “stepped up to the plate” at a moment’s notice. “They do it because they feel passionately about helping the community,” said Ruben Almaguer, FIU’s emergency management and disaster operations chief. “Two hours after we called them, we were all in the hospital’s executive boardroom getting credentialed as emergency volunteers.”

“We were there at 1 o’clock in the morning, and the President of the university was right there with us, Dean Rock was right there with us, and Ruben Almaguer was right there with us,” said Pelaez. “We walked in there as FIU, and it was a good feeling.”

An hour after she went to “bed”, Pelaez was already up again and on the phone mustering fresh troops for a second shift in the emergency room. For now, sleep will have to wait.