On Alert! Disaster Medical Response Teams Ready to Help

When a tornado, hurricane, or earthquake strikes, most of us watch the devastation play out on the evening news. Some of us reach for the checkbook to send a donation. But others like Jean Audrain, Clinical Research Nurse Coordinator in the Division of Nephrology, will have their bags packed, waiting for the call that will put them on the road to help those in need.

Jean is a member of the Missouri Disaster Medical Response System (MoDRS) and the federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT), which are comprised of professional and para-professional medical personnel who provide quick medical response to local and national disasters or events.

“I joined after 911,” says Jean, who as a nurse was anxious to help after the tragedy. She recalled reading an article about Dr. Jeffrey A. Lowell, Professor of Surgery and Pediatrics at Washington University, who was being recognized for his contribution to emergency response efforts in the St. Louis region and beyond. Jean knew Jeffrey through his work with dialysis patients and asked him how he came to volunteer for the disaster medical service. He responded: “That is not the important part. What’s important is how can I get you involved?”

Jean and her team would see 50-100 people today in emergency tent like this.

“So, Jeffrey referred me to the Missouri arm of the federal DMAT (DMAT-MW01), and in November of 2002 I finally went to the first meeting,” says Jean.

Almost every state has a DMAT team, and each team takes turns being on call. Depending on the event, teams from multiple states are deployed. When Category 5 hurricane Wilma hit Florida in October of 2005 (just two months after hurricane Katrina), it was Jean’s turn to be deployed.

About 30 members of a 150-member team Missouri DMAT are deployed at a time, in two-week stints. A core of logistical and administrative staff supports the team. “The majority of the people on our team are emergency, trauma, ICU-type physicians,” says Jean. “We have the medical director, Dr. Douglas Char, Professor of Emergency Medicine here at Barnes, doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, RNs, EMTs, medics, some firemen who also serve as medics and paramedics, and a few policemen who serve as security. We have pharmacy, respiratory therapy and x-ray capability. We have people who set up the communications, whether it is satellite phones or computers. We have our own generators. We have tents. We can fully exist as a small emergency room.”

Deployed personnel generally fly commercial airlines or drive in a convoy to a staging area near the disaster site. “We don’t actually go to the area of the disaster until the disaster, such as a hurricane, has landed.” The teams meet daily and train until it is time to move closer to the disaster. For hurricane Wilma, they waited near Orlando, then when given the “OK” set up the mobile medical unit on the parking lot of the Boca Raton Community Hospital to supplement their emergency room.
“The patients came to us first. We triaged them, decided if it was something we could take care of … wounds, fractures, all around care. We saw maybe 50-100 people per day.”

During deployment, the volunteers can experience austere living conditions. They stay in abandoned or unused gymnasiums, in tents they pitch themselves, or in cheap hotels when they can find them. “We are on the buddy system. You can’t just run off on your own. You always have to go in pairs, even if it is to the bathroom. We go to areas where there is no electric, so we take own,” says Jean. They take their own water, too. “We have devices to make water potable. No baths, no showers.” If they can’t find a working laundromat, they wash their clothes in a bucket. “We have to be prepared to fully take care of ourselves for 72 hours without assistance.”

Jean recalls being deployed for hurricane Gustov in 2008. “They sent us down to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. While we are driving in, the hurricane is actually coming in to the west of us. We stayed in this building, a school for the deaf, which was closed and didn’t have electricity. We had some windows blow in. You know, we can handle stuff like that.”

Jean’s personal motto is: We do the best that we can, for the most that we can, with what we have. “It’s very rewarding for me, and it’s all worth it. It’s some of the hardest, most physical work I’ve ever done in my career as a nurse. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, if called. I wish I could do more.”

The WashU/BJC/Children’s community can boast of other volunteers on the DMAT/MoDRS team: Sara (Dorothy) and Bob Hancock, BJC pharmacists; Trisha Teitz, RN, Children’s Hospital Transport Team; Douglas Char, MD, BJC Professor of Emergency Medicine; Brian Froelke, MD BJC Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine; Rick Reith, Nurse Practitioner, formerly employed by the Division of Nephrology (and recruited by Jean for both teams!). “We truly work as a team to accomplish our goal to take care of and provide for those in need. Our reward is the gratitude of those we’ve helped.”

Jean wants people to know they are always looking for more volunteers and recommends visiting the DMAT and MoDRS websites, or here, to learn more. “Even if you don’t think you would fit, they can help find you a place to fit. We need new people in here!

Being prepared is part of a DMAT/MoDRS volunteer’s life. Jean says, “I’ve learned to watch the weather channel. When there’s a hurricane, I’m on it! They tell us ahead of time, ‘You are on alert!’. That means pack your bag and be ready.”