As Houston hospitals recover from Hurricane Harvey, Kaiser Permanente, OhioHealth step up to provide relief

Rescue workers help woman into truck amid floodwaters
To ease the burden on Houston-area hospitals, other providers are offering aid. (U.S. Dept. of Defense)

As Houston-area hospitals continue to recover from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, providers from other parts of the country are pitching in to lighten the load.

Kaiser Permanente will donate $1 million toward relief efforts, it announced, with half going to the American Red Cross for immediate medical and recovery needs, and the rest going to Mental Health America of Houston to provide more long-term emotional support to survivors and first responders.

Bechara Choucair, M.D., senior vice president and chief community health officer for Kaiser Permanente, said that the system felt it was “critically important” to provide funds to support mental healthcare, as the effects of the storm could impact people for a long time after the cleanup is complete.

“We know that beyond the physical damage of this storm, those affected will feel the mental and emotional impact of this storm long after the waters recede,” he said.

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Nine laboratory technicians from OhioHealth also flew to Houston to aid the effort. The system is a member of the MD Anderson Cancer Network, and its lab techs were able to provide the specialized expertise needed to support MD Anderson Cancer Center, reports The Columbus Dispatch.

The OhioHealth techs will also allow MD Anderson’s laboratory technicians much-needed time to leave work and survey the damage to their homes and other property, Elizabeth Wagar, M.D., chairwoman of MD Anderson’s department of laboratory medicine, told the newspaper.

“The OhioHealth staff is giving the heart of my laboratory a chance to breathe,” Wagar said.

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However, the recovery effort isn’t over for the region's hospitals, which faced both significant increases in patients and damage from the storm. Many clinical staff members working at St. Joseph Medical Center in downtown Houston had spent a week around the clock at the hospital, and were unable to return home and look at their own property damage, according to an article from National Public Radio.

The response also required staff from across the hospital to step in, including medical students and physicians from other departments to work in emergency care. The medical students have built a spreadsheet to keep track of scheduling as patients come in; as many as 600 a day during the heaviest windows.

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CHI St. Luke’s Health, a part of Catholic Health Initiatives, had to evacuate 17 of its hospitals because flooding prevented crucial supplies from reaching those facilities, according to an article from Hospitals & Health Networks. The system created a Hurricane Harvey command center to deal with both an influx of patients needing medical care and also a wave of people seeking shelter and housing in the hospitals.

The response offers lessons to other providers on how to handle future natural disasters, much like Hurricane Katrina and prior disasters. Ruth Berggren, M.D., a Texas native who was working at now-closed Charity Hospital in New Orleans during Katrina, told Kaiser Health News that she’s seen improvements since that hurricane.

Harvey, she said, is the first natural disaster taking place after the federal government revised natural disaster response guidelines in response to Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.

“I think that whole region along the Gulf Coast is much more attuned to the fact that we have to prioritize educating health professionals about disaster preparedness,” she said. I see better preparedness in the medical community and I like to think that’s part of the Hurricane Katrina legacy.”