Published 11/1/2017

In the Firehouse

'Out of nowhere, we built a network of medical professionals'
Amy Cockerham is a nurse practitioner who works in orthopaedic trauma with Joshua Gary, MD, at Memorial Hermann's Level 1 trauma center in Houston and lives in Friends­wood, a bedroom community south of the city. With the rising waters paralyzing transportation around her, Ms. Cockerham stayed in Friendswood to serve as a medical coordinator at an emergency operations center established at the fire station.

She marshaled resources to respond to a range of medical needs, including those of first responders—her husband, Brent, among them—who were out in the waters rescuing people through the night and around the clock.

"This is a dispatch unit that's used to getting 14 calls per day for fire, rescue, and emergency medical services. During Hurricane Harvey, that number went to 1,680," Ms. Cockerham said. "My job was to help facilitate where we had our resources. While people were getting rescued, medical personnel, like myself and many others, would facilitate getting treatment for patients who needed it, such as getting dialysis patients to dialysis centers. We worked with local high schools to open shelters and then, out of nowhere, we built a network of medical professionals who volunteered their time at those shelters. The responders rescued and sheltered approximately 1,000 people in three makeshift shelters in two schools and a church.

"A lot of it was not what we knew but who we knew, such as a pharmacist in the area that could get us to an open pharmacy. Those kinds of things were happening in the middle of the night because we had people who were in dire need. There were rescuers who were getting injured and needed immediate attention but there were no emergency rooms, no urgent cares open."

Ms. Cockerham also set up a clinic at the fire station and worked in conjunction with a pharmacist to get appropriate medication for rescuers and volunteers with often aggressive skin infections.

"For the first responders to stop what they're doing and go get a prescription filled … it really just was not possible," she said. "So, in those acute hours between that Sunday and into Wednesday, those men and women were still rescuing people and getting into situations where they're getting cuts and scrapes. We were rescuing people that needed immediate antibiotic therapy. Those were the critical things that we did from the very beginning."

In retrospect, Ms. Cockerham said, "What I saw that was just amazing was the cohesiveness of the medical community. Regardless of who worked where, we all came together. We had a veterinarian that came in and said, 'Hey, I want to help.' We had pharmacists that had the ability to run to their pharmacies and get what we needed. We had administrators, who were top administrators that run our facilities, saying, 'Hey, no problem, we can do this.' I would especially like to recognize Walt Lowe, MD, our department chairman, for encouraging all department staff members that could not make it to the hospital to volunteer in recovery efforts during the week following Harvey. Without his support, my colleagues and I would not have been able to personally impact the hardest hit areas of our local neighborhoods."