I was on my acting internship in internal medicine when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston. This rotation entails taking intern-level responsibility as a fourth year student to prepare for residency. I was learning so much the first three weeks, but I got stranded at home for four days in the final week when the flooding from Harvey was at its worst. There were two feet of water on all the roads surrounding my apartment complex and there was nowhere I could go.
Once the water subsided, I sent an e-mail to my attending physician, Dr. Krucke, asking if I could come into the county hospital to help. It was the last week of my rotation and it felt improper to sit at home when the roads were passable to get to the hospital. My attending agreed that I could rejoin the team, so I made the familiar drive on mostly empty roads to LBJ County Hospital. My job, as it had been the whole month, was to read up on all of our patients, anticipate their care plans, and help the residents after rounds to enter orders and follow up on study results. This time though it felt much more important because the facility was in recovery mode and the team was short-handed.
Our county hospital was still on restricted access for the public, which meant that family and friend visits with patients was extremely limited and the only way into the building was through the emergency room. The hospital had been hit pretty hard by the storm. There were multiple leaks in the ceilings. The call rooms and resident work room looked very lived-in from the people who had been there for the past 96 hours taking care of some very sick patients and weathering the storm. In total dozens of medical residents and faculty members had stayed at least four nights at the hospital, a generally unprecedented length for a consecutive shift. They had brought food, toiletries, and clothing in anticipation that they’d be staying for a long time and they were right!
That first day back, we discharged a man who had had a unilateral below-knee amputation before the hurricane hit. Our social worker had trouble securing him a wheelchair before discharge, so all we could provide was a four point walker. The patient explained this would not work for him because he was having a lot of balance problems with the walker. He was understandably worried about falling at home, and he would not be able to afford a prosthetic replacement for his leg for a long time or potentially ever. My attending, a very kind man with a huge heart, told the patient he would see if he could come up with a wheelchair.
During my second day back at work, and the final day on my acting internship rotation, Dr. Krucke called the team wireless telephone that was always carried by the intern, and he asked if we would meet him at the back door of the hospital. He had used his personal time that morning to swing by a clinic where he knew a wheelchair had been stashed away in a back closet. The wheelchair was dirty from years of nonuse, and my task was to get it all cleaned up because the patient from the day before would be coming up to retrieve it. I cleaned it vigorously because I wanted it to be just right for my patient.
Later that day our team phone rang again while we were on rounds. The patient was outside the emergency department entryway waiting on his wheelchair. Our team’s intern and I went to take it to him. The man insisted on trying out the chair before taking off from the hospital. It took all he had to ambulate from the passenger side of the truck to the chair. But, I could see how happy it made him that we had gone out of our way to provide him with a wheelchair to use at no cost. It took all I could do to hold back my tears from his joy after such a rough week.
The patient gave the intern and me a firm and sincere handshake, and thanked us three times before his friend drove them away from the hospital. That day I was reminded that in times of distress, kindness can move mountains. It also reinforced that being a physician is about loving your fellow man and helping in any way you can. Comprehensive medical care like this is just the kind I aspire to practice in the future, and it goes beyond typical “doctoring”. Sometimes you improve people’s lives outside of the emergency department and exam rooms. Sometimes, in fact, you find help stashed in the most unlikely of places, like the back of a forgotten storage closet.
About David Savage
David Savage is a MD/PhD student at the UTHealth McGovern Medical School in Houston, TX in his final year of training. He will enter internal medicine residency in summer 2018. He’s from Lindale, TX, a town of 5,000 people in rural East Texas best known for its local country star Miranda Lambert.