Medford pharmacist Amy Baker was among the thousands of responders doing "whatever they could" to assist battered Florida communities in the wake of Hurricane Irma's destructive sweep through that state. It was her second call to duty for hurricanes in her seven years as a member of a National Disaster Medical Assistance Team.
A pharmacist for the nonprofit Rogue Community Health, Baker returned to the Rogue Valley this week after a 14-day deployment to the Florida Keys where she was sent just before Hurricane Irma’s Sept. 10 landfall as a dangerous category 5 storm.
Part of the National Disaster Medical System under the federal Department of Health and Human Services, the team on which Baker serves is deployed to national disasters and tasked with ensuring basic public health when resources are practically non-existent and everyday needs such as health care are unavailable.
The 42-year-old Ashland resident described the atmosphere of the storm-ravaged region as desperate and austere but said the spirit of teamwork and human kindness were bright spots in the midst of disaster. Her team staged in Georgia and was flown in by military plane in the immediate aftermath.
For her part, Baker was tasked with establishing a large tent pharmacy to provide for regular pharmacy needs that weren’t being met because of extensive closures of area providers, as well as for hurricane-related issues for victims of the storm and first responders.
An added perk, she was deployed as "backfill" support with the team she’d been assigned to while living in Hawaii, during her pharmacy residency.
Set up at the Florida Keys Community College in Key West, Baker said her team of 31 saw to the everyday medical needs as best it could, whether pharmacy-related or otherwise.
“We had a woman in her 80s who was out of meds, probably had not eaten in days. She had a very large gash and was very pale,” Baker recalled.
“She came in every day for a dressing change and to get daily medications. The last day we were there she got all dressed up and brought a card to us. It was very heartwarming. There was another case where a dog had been mauled and the team helped to stabilize the dog enough for the owners, and found a vet in the area who could be open, so that the family could have a few hours with their dog and they were able to say goodbye.”
First responders from various agencies, whether federal agents or agencies from around the state that sent needed help, also relied on the medical personnel.
“We had everything from first responders who would get cuts from wading into damaged structures to those who figured out that wading through contaminated water probably wasn’t the best thing,” said Baker.
Being able to provide a helping hand was particularly rewarding for Baker in the midst of one of the more devastating hurricane seasons on record. Baker also deployed with her team from Hawaii for Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
With the area still facing extensive flooding and service outages more than two weeks after Irma, Baker said anyone providing aid to the area had to be self-contained. That involved establishing temporary facilities and providing for their own basic needs, including transporting of all supplies, providing power generators and surviving on basic rations such as MREs or “meals ready to eat” whenever necessary.
Conditions in the area were bleak at best, she said.
“It was austere. If they had not evacuated the Keys, it would have been disastrous,” she said.
“There was no electricity, no A/C, no water. They ran the water for a couple hours every day, but so many pipes were out so the pipes would burst in lots of areas when they did turn it on.”
A sense of teamwork and helpfulness kept volunteers going, said Baker.
Team members from federal agencies being housed at a nearby Marriott Hotel offered an air-conditioned banquet room to give Baker’s team a reprieve from the humidity while the hotel extended meal services — free breakfast and dinner — to all emergency workers.
“Everyone who was there just had a willingness to do whatever they could. We were all helping in every way from putting up the tent to taking out the trash,” she said, noting that the impact of Hurricane Irma was evident in every way.
“We had to learn to flush toilets with standing water and we would go out to collect water for flushing toilets and we would find coconut crabs and jellyfish and other sea life that had been transferred to land ... . One of the other teams experienced a pond with an alligator.”
While it was strenuous work, Baker said it was an honor to be called on.
“To be part of helping to restore and provide basic public health and to be in service was very rewarding," she said. "To not know what’s happening but to be ready to flow with whatever happens and to give whatever you have ... it was really wonderful to be part of a team like that.
“I love that team effort and that basic human kindness. It’s so wonderful to be part of something where everyone has this willingness to just go and to help however they’re needed.”
— Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.