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Tuesday Oct 20, 2015

Strength in Numbers: Teamwork Prevails in Face of Disaster

What would you do if a sewage leak closed half the patient care rooms in your clinic and a historic flood(www.weather.com) injured patients, damaged your community and created general chaos?  

You'd rely on your team.

Tech. Sgt. Jorge Intriago/U.S. Air National Guard
A levee is breached at the Columbia Riverfront Canal, Columbia, S.C., during a flood. Historic flooding in early October caused more than a dozen dams to fail, closed hundreds of roads and bridges and left thousands of the state's residents without power and electricity.

That’s what happened recently here in Columbia, S.C. Thanks to floods from what experts described as a "1,000-year rainfall," the west side of our family medicine center -- home to a residency program with about 40 practicing residents and attendings -- flooded with "gray water" that shuttered half of our exam rooms for nearly a week.

At one point, our main hospital was planning evacuation strategies for ER patients because the water supply in its Level 1 trauma center was compromised. I happened to be the ward attending when that happened and was working with week-one interns and senior-level residents.  

We could have been quite harried in this situation, but we weren't. Although we could not discharge patients home on the day of the deluge -- especially when a patient’s mother tells you she saw her house in floodwaters on the news -- our service was not overcrowded, residents were not burned out, and rounds continued.  

I did take a moment to visit the family medicine center during the downpour, but thankfully, there was no flood damage. Only the west side of the clinic was crippled by the gray water.

Although our team did fine, many resources were tapped and strained. Early Sunday afternoon, colleagues had treated two patients who had nearly drowned and another who had rhabdomyolysis from hanging on for dear life in floodwaters. Another patient, who was discharged from the ER, was later swept away by rushing water and found dead downstream. That was one of at least 19 deaths related to flooding in the state.

More than a dozen dams in the state failed, and hundreds of bridges and roads were closed. One of the main interstates in my community was closed because of concerns about the stability of a bridge that had turbulent water from the above flood-stage Congaree River flowing beneath it. And even though the closures made it challenging for my colleagues to get to and from work, some of our team members came to work that Monday and Tuesday -- even though the clinic was closed -- to relieve the inpatient service of clinical patient questions, refill requests, etc.  

To make matters worse, the canal that supplies Columbia with most of its drinking water broke and set off a boil-water advisory. Imagine what it is like to not be able to wash your hands while working in a hospital! Statewide, thousands of residents were left without water or electricity.

Recovery from what we've come to call "South Carolina's Great Flood of 2015" continues. Many of the residents of Columbia and surrounding areas have months of recovery and cleanup ahead of them. Damages are expected to run into the billions of dollars.

Still, amid great tragedy, a sense of compassion, sacrifice and community has arisen. From the amazing first responders who risked their lives -- including one who died -- to rescue hundreds of people, as well as my colleagues who were willing to work long hours to ensure patient care continued, to the hundreds of volunteers at shelters, cleanup sites and water distribution sites who gave freely of their time, labor and money, Columbia escaped despair during what were truly desperate times. Because of the team approach in our clinic and our community, we have been able to remain strong.  

Meshia Waleh, M.D., is an assistant professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine.

Posted at 03:11PM Oct 20, 2015 by Meshia Waleh, M.D.

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