October 23, 2017

Doctors, nurses, and technicians from Dell Medical School helped provide care at the emergency shelter in Austin.

By Kaulie Lewis
Population Health Scholar
University of Texas System
Master's Student in Journalism
UT Austin Moody College of Communication

 
 

As Hurricane Harvey approached the Texas Gulf Coast in late August, public health officials in Austin were already thinking through their response to the storm. A Category 4 hurricane when it made landfall, Harvey was the strongest storm to hit the U.S. in 12 years. State and local officials knew that many Gulf Coast residents were going to need temporary shelter—and medical care—in the following days and weeks.  

CommUnityCare, a publicly-funded healthcare system in Travis County, quickly set about preparing a medical clinic for the Austin-area shelter. One of their first moves was to ask for support from The University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School

“We were actively engaged right from the very beginning because CommUnityCare reached out to us to see if we would help,” says Dr. Jonathan MacClements, who helped lead Dell Medical’s Harvey response.  

Dell Med’s team makes a point of staying prepared for exactly these kinds of emergencies, says MacClements, a family medicine specialist and Assistant Dean of Graduate Medical Education. The school participates in FEMA’s emergency management system training, and has worked on building the relationships and communication structures necessary to keep things straight in a time of stress. 

Reaching out to the school’s large residency and fellow communities, MacClements and his colleagues requested volunteers to help staff the daily clinic. They were overwhelmed by the response.  

“We reached out across all 16 of our programs,” MacClements says, “and we had a huge interest from students. Our needs were always met, and we had even more people on standby.”  

The medical school’s volunteers included many primary care residents and fellows as well as a strong showing from the psychiatry program, including chair of psychiatry Dr. Stephen Strakowski, who volunteered at the shelter to care for Harvey victims.  

“We were responsible for staffing the clinic that ran every day,” MacClements says. “That entailed providing all kinds of care, including emergency care.” 

As soon as evacuees began to arrive, the team was ready. Evacuees with acute issues, long-term chronic illnesses, and mental health concerns were all treated in the shelter clinic.  

The team was prepared to care for as many as 2,000 evacuees, but ultimately far fewer evacuees arrived than had been anticipated. That, says MacClements, was a good thing.  

 “It meant people were hopefully getting good care in Houston,” he says. “It’s always a good thing when people do not have to leave their homes and communities.”  

For MacClements, Dell Med’s response to Hurricane Harvey underlines a wider truth: that relationships between healthcare providers and centers in a community are essential. 

“It was very easy and natural to answer the phone when the shelter called us,” he says. “We just said, ‘What do you need? Do you need us to join you? Well, absolutely.’ That’s because those relationships had already been built.” 

The strong relationship was also testament, he says, to the value of Dell Medical School’s unique relationship with the city and the sense of mutual obligation. 

“This is the beautiful thing about having medical education in the community,” MacClements says. “And it wasn’t only us. We were interacting with our School of Nursing and with the other community nursing components. When you have medical educational facilities in your city, there’s a vast amount of resources that you can pull down in a time of disaster.”  

Dell Med isn’t done helping after Harvey. The school’s staff and students are still fundraising for relief support, and several of MacClements’ colleagues are still actively engaged in the relief in Houston.  

“It’s just absolutely amazing. I was so immensely proud of the relationships, the response from our team, and the genuine desire I saw to take care of our fellow citizens in their time of need,” he says. “It’s sad that such a terrible event occurred, but it always amazes me how people come together.”