Finding harmony after Harvey

Hurricane Harvey brought many Houstonians together to provide rescue and care for those in need. Dr. Kjersti Aagaard, professor of obstetrics and gynecology, was one of many healthcare professionals who volunteered to provide medical care to evacuees at the George R. Brown convention center, and she says her experience undoubtedly changed how she would work with patients in the future.

Dr. Kjiersti Aagaard

Dr. Kjiersti Aagaard

While at the shelter, Aagaard quickly realized the number of evacuees with chronic illness in need of urgent medical care. “When I arrived early Tuesday morning, there were about 100 evacuees gathered in one area of medical services,” she said. “These were many folks on chronic dialysis, most of whom required three-times-a-week dialysis but had not been dialyzed for four to five days and were in critical need of care.”

It was evident that this immediate situation was largely a systems issue that could use, in Aagaard’s words, an “assertive Scandinavian mom and physician” to help solve, and she happily accepted that assigned role. Working with a network of equally assertive and caring volunteers, they were able to track down the contact information for the regional directors of the major dialysis centers, including Davita and Fresenius, and explained the situation.

“Their response and kindness was overwhelming and gracious – within hours we had eight nearby centers staffed and open. Thanks to the great work of Houston Public Health and Metro, we were able to readily mobilize and transport what had grown to roughly 120 or so dialysis-dependent evacuees to be dialyzed. 24 hours later, these same units were operating at majority capacity. This was teamwork at its absolute best,” she said.

And it wasn’t just the dialysis care community that answered the call. “I was overwhelmed with pride and gratitude at the answered call for non-medical volunteering from our Baylor medical students,” she said. “I have seen several hash tags about Harvey, but the one that resonates for me most is #HoustonHarmony. There is harmony of purpose, people and compassion here in Houston, and it is certainly where I want to be.”

Aagaard was proud of the volunteerism, especially in the medical community, but she also was struck by the response from evacuees to their situation.

“A poignant memory came from one of the dialysis evacuees who I will call ‘Billie.’ He was a very distinguished older African American, a Houston native who proudly told me he had managed to ‘live just fine’ through nearly every major hurricane since 1920, and ‘Harvey wasn’t going to get him too down’. He was dressed very well, looking dapper in suspenders with a matching a jaunty cap and vest–including some rather swanky socks. As I started to talk with from Billie about his immediate care needs, I commented on how finely dressed he was. With a deep and gentle Houston drawl and a mischievous grin, he told me that when he knew they were coming to evacuate him from his trapped second floor he thought best to dress in his finest ‘cause they would probably want him to be on television’, and [he] wasn’t going to ‘look like some poor ol’ foolish man who couldn’t get himself out.’ I had to turn away to hide a few escaped tears – what an incredible and powerful reminder of the importance of preserving one’s dignity in the face of disaster.”

-By Jeannette Jimenez