Two days after Hurricane Dorian slammed into part of the Bahamas last September, Steve Stevens, a Westchester, N.Y., paramedic, was on a plane headed to the island nation to help deliver emergency medicine to those affected by the disaster.
Stevens is a volunteer coordinator for NYC Medics, an international volunteer disaster-response organization that deploys emergency medical teams worldwide in the aftermath of natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and typhoons. Its self-sufficient and ultralight teams typically consist of physicians, nurses, and paramedics experienced in finding and bringing care to the communities left most inaccessible by disasters. They know minor injuries and illnesses can become life-threatening without prompt intervention.
“We provide prehospital care in these disaster zones,” says Stevens. “Instead of setting up large treatment facilities or field hospitals like many larger NGOs do, we send out smaller teams ranging from 6–8 people and go into the more austere, harder-to-reach locations that are usually hit just as hard as, if not harder than, the main areas. We treat people at the point of injury and medevac if necessary back to primary care facilities.”
New York City paramedic Phil Suarez, a cofounding member and operations director for NYC Medics, says the organization never self-deploys. Leaders wait to hear from the World Health Organization (WHO), which has an initiative to coordinate emergency medical teams called to help. These range from fixed field hospital teams that offer surgical and inpatient assistance to mobile medical teams such as NYC Medics, which are listed in a WHO database.
Organizations like NYC Medics are called upon only when emergency medical assistance is requested by an impacted country. “WHO governs and liaisons with the countries facing these disasters,” says Suarez. “When Dorian happened the government of the Bahamas placed an international appeal for humanitarian assistance. One of the things they requested was emergency medical assistance. During disasters we monitor and prepare for deployment in case we are activated.”
Suarez adds that bringing mobile medical teams to deliver prehospital care to disaster areas is critical.
“In the past, the big relief agencies would set up smaller field hospitals in the main cities, so people had to come to them,” he says. “Some people have never even left their villages, nor will they ever. So we found this niche. More organizations are also now offering mobile medical teams, but we were one of the pioneers.”
It’s not just natural disasters the organization assists with. Suarez says NYC Medics, which was deployed for the first time in 2005, was on the ground in Mosul, Iraq in August 2017 to help save lives among civilians injured in the battle between U.S.-backed coalition forces and ISIS. This mission represented NYC Medics’ first deployment to a war zone. It came in response to a November 2016 request by WHO for assistance in the area to reduce casualties.
‘A Disaster of Epic Proportions’
Dorian, a Category 5 storm, was the strongest hurricane on record to ever hit the Bahamas. It nearly wiped out Abaco and Grand Bahamas. Entire communities were underwater, and there was extensive damage to homes, clinics, and hospitals. The official death toll is now 61, according to the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency. Rebuilding efforts and cleanup continue. The UN called Dorian a “disaster of epic proportions.” More than 70,000 people needed lifesaving assistance.
NYC Medics was initially deployed to Nassau and dispatched a mobile medical unit to Eleuthera and Grand Cay to help provide medical aid. Rand Memorial Hospital in Grand Bahama was flooded during the storm and was no longer functioning.
With hurricanes, as opposed to other natural disasters, Stevens notes, most of the critically ill and injured people are moved immediately. “All the patients from the Abacos and Grand Bahama were taken to Princess Margaret Hospital in Nassau,” says Stevens. “A field hospital was set up in front of Rand Memorial, but that was a few days after the event. Others were flown to the United States to be treated.”
NYC Medics was deployed from September 9–22. The team consisted of eight (three paramedics, an ER nurse, and four physicians) in addition to Kathy Bequary, the executive director, who stayed in Nassau for the duration of the deployment to coordinate with the local government and WHO where the team was needed.
The medical and emergency medical service teams that go to disaster areas treat hurricane-related primary-care problems, according to Stevens.
“These are people injured during the storm, but not severely enough to need medevac, who begin to have wound infections; a lack of medication for their primary problems, such as high blood pressure or diabetes; and just follow-up care,” he explains. “We also had to provide care for pregnant women who were unable to get in touch with their physicians for prenatal checkups.”
The biggest issue facing volunteer teams such as NYC Medics after these disasters is the logistics of transport. This was especially true in the Bahamas, a chain of islands.
“Even if you have a vehicle, you can’t necessarily drive everywhere,” says Stevens. “Following a hurricane, if the road isn’t totally washed away, it’s covered in debris, which makes it virtually useless. With the Bahamas, there’s a large body of water surrounding every island, so you get back and forth by boat or aircraft. Our team was flown around by the U.S. Navy or a helicopter, which is how we made our way from island to island.”
As volunteers, Stevens, Suarez, and the rest of the team understand the importance of taking a break from their day jobs in support of humanitarian efforts.
“I believe volunteerism is one of the greatest forms of giving back to a community,” says Stevens. “And NYC Medics does it on a global level. I can take my skill set, emergency and rescue medicine, and use it directly in the organization, so it’s a perfect fit.”
Daniel Casciato is a freelance writer and social media consultant from Pittsburgh, Pa. He makes his living writing about health, law, social media, and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @danielcasciato.