Hurricane Harvey is one of the most devastating events to ever occur in Texas, and my community, the Houston metropolitan area. Fortunately, my family was safe and dry throughout the storm, which meant I could to go into work. I am one of many speech-language pathologists at our community hospital in The Woodlands—30 miles north of downtown Houston—but the only SLP able to get in during or immediately following the storm. Many of my colleagues and their families were affected by the flooding.
As the area’s only freestanding pediatric hospital equipped to treat children in need of emergency care, as well as provide intensive and acute care services, we received many patients during and after the storm. My experience serving our community during the most emotionally challenging week of my career gave me new perspective as an SLP.
I made it into work late Monday afternoon and was asked to immediately check orders for existing patients. On my way, the physical therapist intercepted and updated me on patients with swallowing concerns. Later that evening, I reviewed charts and made plans with nursing staff to arrange to see these patients at bedside for their next feedings. I camped out overnight in one of our outpatient treatment rooms, because getting home and back wasn’t possible.
Before heading to the floor early the next morning, I checked overnight admits and gasped at the large number. I couldn’t believe how many children needed intubation. Many families arrived wet, in shock and with their belongings in a trash bag. One family even arrived with the small boat they used to evacuate during the storm.
I started that morning with 6 am feedings for the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), something I only experienced as the mother of a NICU baby. After feedings I went to rounds in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU). I had to turn away when one mother broke down and told the team that while she was here with her sick son, her other children were at a shelter with her mother who has a disability. Guest services provided her with dry clothes. Social workers and the chaplain also provided her with support. The charge nurse said the Coast Guard helicopter had delivered the mother and child. It returned later with another patient.
Every room I visited yielded another heartbreaking story of lives forever changed by Harvey. By the time I paused for a moment, several hours had passed. Many more patients needed speech consults for swallowing or cognition and by mid-day, I had tons of documentation to complete. Local restaurants donated many of our meals that week—including lunch that day—which I ate at my desk while documenting the morning visits.
Before I finished, my phone rang with another critical baby who was choking during bottle feeding. I ran down to catch the rest of the feeding. On my way, I saw the Coast Guard helicopter land again. I reminded myself to check new orders once I got back to my desk. Thankfully, we don’t see a helicopter land on the helipad often, but this week it was a regular occurrence. For the next few days, we received even more patients, which meant even more consults, evaluations and sessions needing my attention.
Kids arrived who were extubated and experiencing difficulty swallowing after prolonged intubation. I saw those kids at bedside and many needed instrumental swallowing assessments. I coordinated with the care team and radiology to complete instrumental assessments as quickly as possible.
It wasn’t until Thursday that the hospital experienced the first glimpse of our “new normal.” And I hadn’t been home since Monday. For many, life will forever be known in pre- and post-Harvey terms, but routines started to feel somewhat familiar again. In any crisis, it’s bittersweet to adjust back into our routines. We long for life before loss, while preparing to rebuild. The sun finally came out, and we felt relief at only a 10 percent chance of rain for the day.
Employees were finally able to go home safely. Along with other teams performing urgent outpatient visits, I conducted my first outpatient swallow function study of the week. It was an appointment I was happy to keep.
This week, ASHA announced that Governor Greg Abbott temporarily suspended statutes with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation to allow out-of-state SLP license holders in good standing with their hospital organizations to assist with disaster relief operations in Texas. I must warn anyone interested in providing speech-language pathology services temporarily in Texas—you might never want to leave. You will receive Texas’ famous southern hospitality and warm welcome.
I’ve seen the best of Texans during one of the worst times in our state’s history. We received an overwhelming nationwide response to the needs of our community. I hope Texas will never experience a storm of this magnitude again in my lifetime, but if it does I know I—and countless other SLPs—will step up to serve again during a time of crisis.
Anais Cook, MS, CCC-SLP, works in the Multidisciplinary Feeding Clinic for the assessment and treatment of pediatric feeding and swallowing disorders at Texas Children’s Hospital The Woodlands. She is also an affiliate of SPecial Interest Group 13, Swallowing and Swallowing Disorders. firstname.lastname@example.org