HURRICANE HARVEY UPDATE: For more information about the impact on VA facilities and services, click here.
As Hurricane Harvey barreled down on the city of Houston, Matt Meloni, a 38-year-old ex-Army ranger who was visiting from Oklahoma for a procedure at the Texas Medical Center, hunkered down at his extended stay hotel, approximately two miles from the Houston VA.
“I recently found out I popped positive for prostate cancer,” said Meloni. “I flew to Houston to get treatment and undergo surgery, I was scheduled for surgery on the 28th, but then the hurricane hit.”
Having not anticipated how long he’d be confined to the hotel, Meloni ventured to the closest grocery store for food and supplies.
“I went to Fiesta across the street and stocked up on food,” said Meloni. “After returning to the hotel and having dinner, I felt pain in my lower abdomen. At the onset I thought it could just be a stomach ache, but I soon realized that wasn’t the case. I googled ‘appendices’ and realized it was a very serious situation. Immediately, my training as a ranger kicked in and I knew I needed to get myself to the VA.”
Meloni says one of the reasons he chose the extended stay hotel was due to providing transportation to and from the Medical Center area. But the buses were late and Meloni knew he couldn’t wait. He decided that his best option would be an attempt to get to the VA on his own. He used his phone to map a route to the VA on foot. He asked the front lobby staff for scissors, tape and a garbage bag. He then proceeded to wrapped his phone in the garbage bag and secure it to himself.
After braving the floods and wading approximately 2 miles through up to chest-high water and debris, Meloni made it to the Houston VA’s ER.
“I came here in the middle of a weather event where it would be not reasonable to get the level of service I was provided,” said Meloni. “I came here in the middle of a hurricane, got laparoscopic surgery in the middle of the night from an amazing surgeon here. The bottom line is, this was great. The VA did a bang-up job on this one, absolutely a bang-up job. When it comes down to bottom line mission accomplishment, my perception of the VA through this experience has changed 1,000 percent. My treatment was spot on and squared away. There’s no private entity that could have done this better, which is substantial management of finite resources to make that happen, much more limited than what the private sector has and the VA pulled it off.”
“I came here in the middle of a hurricane, got laparoscopic surgery in the middle of the night from an amazing surgeon here. The bottom line is, this was great. The VA did a bang-up job on this one.” ~ Army Veteran Matt Meloni
Dr. Christy Chai, Chief of General Surgery and Surgical Oncology, an 8-year Air Force Veteran and the staff surgeon on duty for Meloni’s case says it was truly a team effort.
“One thing I went to emphasize is that surgery is a team sport,” said Chai. “We had some staff stay in since Friday, in anticipation of this Category-4 hurricane and as a hospital we were well prepared in anticipation of these emergencies.”
“I really do think that we have a great team here at the Houston VA,” said Chai. “I don’t think at any time anyone ever talked about whose shift it was…we all worked together to make it possible to provide the best care to our Veterans even in at the peak of Hurricane Harvey.”
By Manda Emery, public affairs specialist, Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center
“We all looked out for each other,” says Dr. Sally Holmes, chief of VA Houston’s Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Unit. “Really, it’s teamwork.”
Before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, it was imperative for Holmes and her team to contact Veterans with spinal injuries. Routinely, SCI makes house checks, but with the storm, staff sheltered in place. Veterans needed emergency plans that would keep them safe. Three Veterans were admitted prior to landfall, making 35 occupied SCI beds with most on life-assisted equipment.
“I had work,” explains , which includes Dr. Carol Bodenheimer. “I had a job to do.”
Staff worked around the clock. Most of these vulnerable Veterans cannot turn themselves, and nurses turn them every couple of hours. Doctors visited patients, even texting pharmacists, who had evacuated, regarding patient prescriptions. As Hurricane Harvey crashed into Houston, everyone braced together.
“Everyone understood the priorities,” Bodenheimer recalled. “Veterans showed that they really cared; asking how my family was through a ventilator.”
For Bodenheimer, Sunday and Monday were the hardest days. Her family was sheltered in their home as the water rushed in and power went out.
“It has been the most stressful week of my life as a physician and a person, “ Bodenheimer said. “But, I have a feeling of gratitude that everyone had food. Everyone had sleep. Everyone had what they needed.”
“Having not been home yet is surreal,” explains Holmes. “I’m still in ‘taking-care-of-Veterans mode.’”
On Wednesday, physicians from VA facilities in San Antonio and Oklahoma arrived to relieve Holmes, Bodenheimer and VA Houston staff. VA nurses and technicians from around the state are also arriving to maintain care for Houston Veterans.
Holmes says, “VA is such a huge family. When we are in need, we look to the mission and what it means.”
By Patrick Hutchison, public affairs specialist, Central Texas VA Health Care System
Help is on the way.
Twenty VA North Texas nursing professionals arrived Wednesday in Houston to relieve their peers at the Michael E. DeBakey Medical Center. The team will join a 25-member team from the Austin-based Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, and 15 professionals from San Antonio-based South Texas Veterans Health Care System.
The VA North Texas nursing contingent includes seasoned registered nurses and licensed vocational nurses from emergency, acute, intensive care, orthopedic, surgical, mental health, geriatric, extended living and spinal cord disciplines.
The diverse group volunteered for the relief mission to provide support to a Houston staff that remained in place for days during Hurricane Harvey.
“Our nursing staff is the epitome of service before self,” said VA North Texas interim director Kendrick Brown. “Providing care and treatment to Veterans, no matter the locale, obstacles or conditions, is what our VA practitioners do best. When we called for volunteers to relieve the Houston staff, our nurses stepped up immediately to help.”
By Jeff Clapper, public affairs specialist, VA North Texas Health Care System
Houston VA’s partners are front and center working with the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Canter to provide support to the staff who are working round the clock to take care of Veterans during Hurricane Harvey.
This week, the American Federation of Government Employees brought in a hot meal and served it to staff at the medical center.
In case you missed it, here are more stories of VA’s response to Hurricane Harvey:
- As Harvey moves eastward, VA sites collaborate to maintain operations
- Houston VA medical team treating around the clock
- VA continues to provide benefits and services in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey
- Alternate VA Medical Centers and clinics if your facility is closed or inaccessible
- Responding to the needs of Veterans affected by Hurricane Harvey
- VA team in Arkansas takes the call supporting Hurricane Harvey response
For the latest updates for the following VA facilities visit the websites below:
- Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center – Houston, Texas
- VA Texas Valley Coastal Blend Health Care System
- South Texas Veterans Health Care System
- Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System
For more on the federal government’s response, visit https://www.usa.gov/hurricane-Harvey. For more on VA’s response, visit http://www.blogs.va.gov/VAntage/hurricane-harvey/.