A force of nature: Bridget Pelaez MA ’17 eats, sleeps and breathes disaster recovery

By Eric Barton

Considering her schedule, Bridget Pelaez is surprisingly chipper for mid-morning on a Wednesday. In the days since Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys, she has been sleeping—poorly—on a bus in a parking lot in Marathon. Luckily, she found a place to shower the day before, a bathroom at a partially destroyed marina. There was no hot water, but she still described access to any running water at all as something of a luxury.

A paramedic and a nurse, Pelaez would be well qualified for a hospital job. Instead, the always-moving 33-year-old helps run the FIU-Florida Advanced Surgical Transport Team, an all-volunteer group of medical professionals who drop into disaster zones to tend to the injured. Her title is flex commander, a role that has her developing schedules for dozens of nurses and doctors one minute, servicing a generator the next and assisting on surgeries as needed. On that Wednesday on the sweltering bus, she had been at it for two weeks, first in Houston following Hurricane Harvey’s destruction there and then in the Keys. She could count one good night of sleep in all that time.

With no bed or fully working bathroom available to her, Pelaez chooses to relish the few small things she does have. Like her supply of Gatorade packets, a travel pillow, sunflower seeds (which she chews to help her stay awake) and a required stash of Cuban coffee. “Focusing on my lack of comforts just doesn’t feel right when there are so many people who lost everything,” she says.

Her attitude is in part a product of her past, the South Miami kid who was always doing things for someone in need. It also comes out of her training through FIU’s Academy for International Disaster Preparedness within the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work, where she received a Master in Disaster Management in 2017.

Upbringing and education, however, can’t totally prepare someone to forego sleep and a decent shower for the better part of two weeks. And that’s what makes Pelaez special: She is ready, willing and able to go without.

Nerves of steel

In 2011, Pelaez, in a full HAZMAT suit, walked out onto a thin metal walkway at the edge of a nuclear bomb crater. Below her was a 450-foot drop into a canyon of radioactive Nevada desert.

Beside her was Raj Maragh. They were both training to be part of an emergency response team, and one challenge involved visiting the site of a nuke test. The exercise was meant to give participants an unusual view of devastation. It also tested their mettle: Will you take those first steps to the edge of the crater, or turn around and find a new career?

“Take a volcano and put it upside down. That’s what it looked like,” Maragh recalled. “It’s real. It’s not a simulation. There we were, on top of where a nuclear bomb was detonated.”

Every person there looked understandably nervous. Except for Pelaez. She just seemed to get calmer under the pressure—a habit of hers in times of high stress. “When things are hairy, you get this sense of confidence in her that everything is going to be taken care of, that it’s going to be OK,” Maragh said.

A history of helping

As an athlete at South Miami Senior High—where she played volleyball, soccer, softball, basketball and golf—Pelaez earned the nickname “Mother Theresa” for always wanting to take care of teammates when they were injured.

“She was very outgoing and always interested in volunteerism,” recalled classmate Steve Lora, remembering how Pelaez would hold blood drives when there was a tragedy somewhere. “She just has this way of helping people, and it was evident even back then.”

Pelaez went on to enroll in the fire academy to become a firefighter and paramedic. With those credentials in hand, she signed up to begin volunteering with various disaster response teams.

Following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, she went to the island with the National Disaster Medical System team and Baptist Health South Florida. Half of each day there she hung drywall and mixed concrete to rebuild a hospital. Then she’d switch to treating patients. Mostly she saw gastrointestinal diseases in children so impoverished they could afford nothing more to eat than biscuits made of dirt mixed with shortening. “They would pound their stomachs with their fists because of the hunger pains,” she said.

That experience encouraged her to pursue a nursing degree, even as she continued to strengthen her disaster response skills by signing up for various kinds of training. One program focused on responding to nuclear and biological attacks, and that’s how she found herself standing next to a nuclear bomb crater in Nevada.

Today Pelaez is looking for a full-time administrative position in disaster management—someone who can help manage deployment while working on strategy and prep between team deployments—as there are actually few paid jobs in disaster response. Most responders deploy as unpaid volunteers, often with the blessing of their regular employers.

“For the past 10 years, I’ve had to explain to friends and family about this path I’m on,” Pelaez said. “But the happiest times in my life have been when I’m caring for the most vulnerable.”

No drama queen

In 2016, Pelaez enrolled in FIU’s Master in Disaster Management program, and like all her fellow students, she’d have to endure one especially tough 48-hour stretch to earn her degree.

That tough final exam involves a disaster simulation on FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus where students spend two days sleeping in a tent, eating freeze-dried meals out of a bag and using a bucket as a bathroom.

“It’s not pleasant,” said Ruben Almaguer, FIU’s Assistant Vice President for Disaster Management and Emergency Operations. In 2015, FIU became the first university in the state and one of only a few institutions in the country to offer a master’s degree in disaster management. “Some people have it in their DNA, and some just don’t.” For those who don’t, their future likely will not include field work, and instead they’ll be headed for an office job. Then, Almaguer said, there’s people like Pelaez, who simply relish those tests of will.

“She does these things because she’s good at it and because it’s important. She simply has a real compassion for others and doesn’t care what she has to sacrifice herself,” he said.

After the flood waters rose in Houston from Hurricane Harvey, Pelaez headed there as part of the National Disaster Medical System team. During the day, she served as the team’s deputy commander, leading meetings and serving as a point of contact, helping coordinate where and when nurses and doctors would be deployed. At night, after her full day of administrative tasks, she’d volunteer at makeshift temporary hospitals.

She saw patients with septic shock likely caused by contact with contaminated flood waters. Others suffered respiratory problems exacerbated when their ventilators lost power. Those involved in post-storm cleanup presented with chainsaw lacerations and injuries from falls off ladders. Some came in with gunshot wounds, not uncommon in the widespread looting that often follows such disasters. For the most serious cases, she arranged for transfers to a local hospital.

Pelaez spent nine days in Houston, sleeping mostly during the 10- or 20-minute bus rides that took her to whichever location needed her next. She was back home in Miami one night before she had to ready herself for Irma. She spent the days before the storm amassing supplies and directing volunteers to where they’d be needed after the storm made landfall.

As the track shifted from the east to west coast of Florida, Pelaez was forced to rethink the plans by the minute.

Read more: FIU-FAST team answers the call for help

The storm made landfall on Sept. 10, and by 8 p.m. that night, Pelaez had sent assignments to 82 volunteers working with the FIU-FAST team. They dispatched to hospitals in South Miami, where ERs had begun filling with those injured in the storm.

At West Kendall Baptist Hospital, Pelaez found herself working with an old friend who had stood with her at the nuclear bomb crater years ago. Raj Maragh is now the emergency preparedness and security director for Baptist Health South Florida. Pelaez’s arrival at the hospital, her team in tow, made for a smooth landing all around. Where clashing egos could have heightened an already difficult situation—a growing number of patients awaited care—she instead used her inborn skills to almost seamlessly schedule her personnel into the existing conditions.

“You have to understand that Bridget makes it not about her,” Maragh said. “It’s always, ‘What can I do, Raj? What can I do to help?’ She’s just a go-getter, and you have the confidence in her that everything is taken care of.”

Meeting the demands of an active hurricane season

Pelaez had one day off before heading back to FIU to log a new shipment of medication and then head with the FIU-FAST contingent to Marathon, where Fishermen’s Community Hospital was damaged beyond use. The team set up a 19-by-35-foot shelter with AC, lights and medical equipment powered by a generator, and soon the hospital staff was seeing 60 patients a day in the temporary space.

With the tent hospital up and running, Pelaez spent two days demobilizing her team. But before she could truly rest, she began looking at what was next. She spoke with officials in Dominica, St. Thomas and Puerto Rico about whether her team could deploy there. They’d need transport, likely from a military cargo plane, which sometimes drops them on a runway with just five minutes to unload. (They ended up not going.)

Whether she would sleep or get a hot shower between the two deployments, she had no idea. People ask her about it a lot, how she can so easily put aside any concern for her own needs.

Her response sums her up perfectly: “I’m kind of that crazy girl who will tell people that I want to help save the world.”