Our Harvey Heroes: Caring for Our Patients Through the Storm and Beyond

It was before daybreak on Sunday when Josh Mascorro rose from bed and grabbed the suitcase he’d stuffed with clothes the day before.

Forecasters had been predicting that Tropical Storm Harvey would deliver torrential downpours and widespread flooding that would bring life in the Greater Houston area to a standstill. But when Mascorro left his post at Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital late Saturday, the streets were clear and the rain was light. He had no doubts he would make it to work by the time his 6 a.m. shift started.

He left his home in Alvin around 5:20 a.m. in his pickup truck, but it wasn’t long before he struck high water on the highway. When he pulled over to call the charge nurse, she broke the news that the hospital had just declared a weather emergency, a designation that requires all staff to remain in place. Mascorro weighed his options: He could turn back, return home to his wife and kids, and stay high and dry while they rode out the storm. Or he could press forward and try to make it to the hospital so that he could offer some much-needed relief to his colleagues who had been on duty since the night before.

He checked the weather radar and saw more heavy rain headed his way.

Mascorro kept driving.

As Tropical Storm Harvey parked over the Houston area for four days straight, unleashing trillions of gallons of water, forcing widespread evacuations and trapping thousands in their homes and neighborhoods, Memorial Hermann employees and affiliated physicians braved the worst natural disaster in Houston’s history to continue delivering compassionate and healing care to patients.

The water rose and the pleas for rescues began to flood 911. As conditions worsened, thousands of Memorial Hermann employees found any means necessary to get to the hospitals and help those in need, then had no choice but to stay for days on end. They worked and slept in the hospitals, even as many of their own homes flooded and their families were forced to evacuate.

The storm raged and patients grew frightened, but Memorial Hermann caregivers remained calm and professional. Their remarkable efforts were vital to keeping the medical infrastructure in Houston open and operational despite the widespread devastation unfurling outside. During the five days that Harvey wreaked havoc on the region, Memorial Hermann employees treated 9,624 Emergency Center cases, performed 748 surgeries and delivered 564 babies – none of which would’ve been possible if not for the herculean efforts by the countless individuals who sacrificed greatly to serve our community during its darkest hour.

People like Morgan McCullough and Casey Aslan, nurses at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, who floated to work in a two-person inflatable kayak as bewildered bystanders called out to them. “We’re going to work, we work at the hospital!” they shouted back, paddling against the torrent in the street. “We’re nurses!”

People like Steven Cantu, a chef at Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital, who wrapped his kitchen essentials in clear plastic wrap, picked up his sous chef who lived nearby, and headed for the hospital with a kayak loaded atop. The two men parked Cantu’s truck atop Interstate 45, lowered the kayak into the floodwaters, hopped over the highway’s side rail into the boat, and rowed in to work.

People like Dr. Amrou Sarraj, a neurologist at Memorial Hermann Mischer Neuroscience Institute and McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, who waded through waist-deep water with a black-and-white umbrella hoisted above his head, as he fought his way against the current to get to the hospital to care for his stroke patients.

And people like Josh Mascorro, who could’ve easily turned around when the floodwater began creeping higher, but who chose instead to find a way to get to those who needed him.

In those early morning hours navigating the dark streets near his house, Mascorro turned down one road and the next, finding flooded cars stalled along the thoroughfares. He turned around and tried a different route. No luck. Frustrated, he steered into a church parking lot and checked his weather app again. Bands of green, yellow and deep red flashed across his cellphone screen. He thought about his colleagues who would be stuck at the hospital, unable to get to their families or check on their homes. He thought about the patients who needed them.

The sky was starting to lighten. He was late for his shift. He put his truck in park, grabbed his suitcase which was wrapped in a plastic trash bag, and set out on foot.

For hours, Mascorro walked, tromping through puddles at first then passing abandoned cars swallowed up by the storm. He waded through floodwater that climbed as high as his waist. He hoisted his suitcase above his head and kept walking. The driving rain drenched his shirt and seeped through the trash bag, soaking his spare clothes, but on he walked. He stole quick, nervous glances at the draining battery on his cell phone as his wife and mother repeatedly called, frantic for updates. He assured them he was OK and kept trudging forward.

By the time he arrived at the Emergency Center entrance of the hospital, he was dripping wet and had walked 7 miles.

A total of 5,073 Memorial Hermann employees worked throughout the storm, not including the many affiliated physicians who worked at their sides, to administer the care patients desperately needed amid catastrophic circumstances.

Beyond the hospital walls, the situation was becoming critical. Thousands were suddenly trapped inside their homes with little to no warning. Although the dangerous road conditions meant that many were unable to make it to work, the spirit of compassion and service that defines Memorial Hermann propelled those stuck in their neighborhoods to find other ways to help their community.

Stranded by the rapidly rising water in the streets, Dr. Joseph Cochran, a UTHealth neurosurgeon with Memorial Hermann Mischer Neuroscience Associates who works at Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital, didn’t wait for the rescuers to come to his Meyerland neighborhood. He retrieved his fishing boat and went to work pulling neighbors from their flooded homes and ferrying them to safety. Dr. Cochran rescued 100 people before his boat capsized, and yet he refused to give up. Even though his own house was actively taking on water, Dr. Cochran managed to find a safe route to work and returned to duty that same night to begin seeing patients again.

For days, Harvey pummeled southeast Texas, filling streets and inundating homes from Meyerland to Katy, from Kingwood to Dickinson. Memorial Hermann employees riding out the storm in the hospitals found themselves unable to leave. Their coworkers who couldn’t safely report to duty at their own campuses were desperate to figure out ways to relieve their colleagues, so they eagerly volunteered to go to the hospital nearest to them.

Before the storm even struck, Bob Steele had offered to help at any campus that may need him. Before joining Memorial Hermann in February as director of clinical solutions for the system’s Information Systems Division (ISD), Steele had worked as a certified RN and paramedic, trained to care for the most critically ill and injured patients.

When Harvey hit, Steele’s house and vehicle were ravaged by floodwater. His family had to be rescued and they took shelter at a friend’s house. Despite his personal tragedy, Steele remembered his pre-storm promise to answer the call for help when it came. And Houston was crying out for help.

Steele didn’t have transportation to get to a campus, but a fellow ISD coworker and friend offered to give him a lift to Memorial Hermann Katy Hospital, where Steele immediately went to work in the Emergency Center. His expertise and well-honed emergency skills quickly earned Steele the respect of his new colleagues, as well as a set of full assignments. “At one point, one of the nurses told me, ‘Well, I never thought I’d be calling ISD for help with an IV!’” he later said with a chuckle.

Throughout the storm, employees from every corner of Memorial Hermann’s extensive network of care delivery sites displayed remarkable courage and resilience. They bid their families farewell and set aside their own fears, anxieties and concerns to save the lives of others. Their dedication ensured that Memorial Hermann never faltered in its mission to provide safe, high-quality care to patients.

For Jessica Dolan, the story of Tropical Storm Harvey is especially memorable. Even though she was 38 weeks into her pregnancy, the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) nurse at Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center reported to work on Thursday, before the storm arrived. Dolan worked and slept at the hospital, tending to the tiniest patients with the most intense needs, from Thursday morning until late Tuesday afternoon when she started having contractions.

Dolan’s husband was trapped by rising floodwaters in their Fort Bend neighborhood and couldn’t get to her side. For hours, the nursing team took turns at her bedside in between taking care of their patients. They helped her through her labor pains and provided emotional support. Dolan’s husband, meanwhile, called every hour on the hour, anxious for information.

Her labor dragged on throughout the night and into the morning. By then, the rain had started to let up and some roadways were draining. Dolan’s husband was finally able to get out of their neighborhood, arriving at the hospital as the worst of the storm came to an end and just in time to see Reid Thomas Dolan make his debut. The beautiful bundle of joy brought hope and a smile into the world amid so much sorrow and heartbreak.

“He came into this world with a bang, to say the least,” Dolan said.

Harvey left an indelible mark on each person it touched, and the many examples of heroism that occurred throughout the storm will be remembered for years and decades to come. Memorial Hermann would like to thank all of the civilian volunteers, first responders, our affiliated physicians and – most of all – our employees, who proved that our commitment to serve the Houston community can withstand even the most traumatic circumstances.

Comments

  1. When my daughter called me from twelve hours away saying that the place she had gone for the night for shelter was now flooding, I was terrified. She had been really brave up until this point, and I could hear the quiver in her voice. She had 2 other coworkers with her and said the were going to try to make it to work! On a kayak! All I could do was pray from this far away. When she got to Memorial Herman I was so relieved! I knew she was safe and with people who would look out for her well being. But mostly i knew she would be doing what she loves, helping others. God has given her a compassion for others. Thanks Memorial Herman for being there for my girl when I couldn’t be!

  2. Heroes. Every one of them. However, I know they will just say that they were just doing their job. Because that’s how dedicated care givers are. It’s who they are. It’s what they do.

    Texas healthcare workers rock!

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