After three hurricanes and six weeks, UCHealth medical relief worker returns home

October 18th, 2017

Two deadly hurricanes already had hit and now a third was headed right toward the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Erin Lennon and other medical relief workers had been trying to help the people of St. Thomas.

Hurricane Irma had decimated the Caribbean islands. Now Maria was barreling toward them.

The workers quickly took down the tent they’d set up to serve as a mobile field hospital. It could only handle gusts up to 50 or 60 miles per hour and winds much worse than that were headed right toward them. Then Lennon, a UCHealth Physician Assistant (PA) and University of Colorado School of Medicine faculty member, and her crewmates flew back to Puerto Rico.

On Puerto Rico, as winds gusted and rain from Maria began to pelt them, the team loaded dialysis patients on planes. The patients already had been evacuated from the Virgin Islands to Puerto Rico. But the power grid on Puerto Rico was fragile and now about 100 patients needed to be evacuated again, this time to Atlanta.

Once their patients were safely on their way to the mainland, Lennon and her teammates raced back to their hotel to ride out Maria before they could get back to work helping people.

Hurricane damage in Carolina, Puerto Rico
Hurricane damage in Carolina, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of Erin Lennon.

They had dubbed themselves “Team America.” Technically, they were part of a U.S. Health and Human Services crew called DMAT Alaska 1, a Disaster Medical Assistance Team. One health worker was from Alaska, but there were others who had joined the team from California, Oregon, Colorado, Oklahoma and Alabama. Their mission was to provide medical help during one of the worst hurricane seasons in decades.

Lennon originally expected to be gone two weeks. She first set out to Texas with a Colorado DMAT team to help after Hurricane Harvey blasted Houston. But as the storms kept coming, Lennon’s service stretched to six weeks. She arrives back today to begin working once again in the surgery department at UCHealth’s University of Colorado Hospital.

She returns home in awe of the humanity she witnessed.

“People come and do the most amazing things. They really rise to the occasion. There’s just a common human kindness,” Lennon said. “My coworkers were awesome. I feel guilty for being home.”

As Maria began to come ashore in Puerto Rico, Lennon and her team counted their blessings that they were staying in a newer hotel, built to withstand ferocious winds.

“It was my first hurricane,” Lennon said. “It was surreal outside. You could see all the damage that was happening.”

They watched roofs fly off buildings, including a section of their own hotel’s roof. The wind stripped trees of their leaves and the flood waters rose. As the storm worsened, hotel workers moved the medical crew and other guests to the center hallway in case the windows shattered.

Thankfully, the windows held as the storm pounded them for hours.

Power lines sagged after Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit St. Croix hard.
Power lines sagged after Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit St. Croix hard. Photo courtesy of Erin Lennon.

One of the team’s first missions after the storm cleared was to rescue an older cancer patient who was stuck in a 10th-floor apartment next door. There was no power in the retired physician’s building, so Lennon and other team members carried the man down all 10 floors by lifting him in his wheel chair. He then was able to seek refuge in a hospital nearby.

Lennon then headed out to other hospitals in San Juan and nearby cities to see how they had fared. In a nearby city called Carolina, they found a hospital that had been functioning without any power after all its generators had been flooded. No power meant they had no use of equipment like ventilators, so for 13 hours, until the generators came back online, workers squeezed a tool that helped one of their patients take every single breath.

In hospital after hospital, they found exhausted staff members coping with poor power supply.

“Unfortunately, that was the norm for the area. We were trying to get generators to them,” Lennon said.

One of her relief colleagues worked in a medical tent in 100-plus degrees caring for ICU patients.

After several days in Puerto Rico, Lennon then traveled to St. Croix for 19 days. There, she found once green hillsides stripped of vegetation. Well-built structures had survived while a trailer park near the hospital was mostly destroyed.

“It looked like a bomb had gone off,” she said.

Lennon slept her first two nights in St. Croix on a cot in the hospital, then was overjoyed when the crew was moved to a hotel with running water and air conditioning.

On St. Croix, she helped evacuate more dialysis patients and handled an assortment of medical issues that arose.

Erin Lennon, second from right, with other medical workers in St. Croix.
Erin Lennon, second from right, with other medical workers in St. Croix. Photo courtesy of Erin Lennon.

“I used to be a PA in the ER before moving to surgery. I really drew on my experience in both. I felt like all my work up until this point was preparing me for this,” said Lennon, 39.

She stitched up several patients who came in with lacerations and helped one man who had a partially lacerated Achilles tendon.

“That’s something I would have had an orthopedic surgeon handle, but it had to be fixed right then and there, so I sutured it back together,” Lennon said.

The trauma of so much hardship also brought people to the clinic. One St. Croix native had recently lost her nephew, then learned her husband had terminal cancer. The storm nearly broke her. Her family brought her for help.

Lennon spent a great deal of time listening to the woman’s story and sharing methods for handling such overwhelming stress.

“She had gone through so much. She touched my heart,” Lennon said.

Overall, she said she had excellent experiences.

“The people were so wonderful. They cared about each other and cared about us,” she said.

Being home is bittersweet. Lennon knows she could have done more since the needs are so great in hurricane-affected areas. But, she’s grateful that her leaders in the surgery department, Dr. Robert McIntyre and Dr. Erik Peltz, made it possible for her to devote six weeks to hurricane relief work.

“They said, ‘We support you. This is in line with our mission and values. You’re doing great work.’”

The best part of coming home has been seeing the friends and family she missed. Lennon has five nieces and nephews. She was gone so long that the youngest two had changed and grown in her absence. June is now four months old. And 10-month-old Sam learned to crawl while Lennon was gone.

Since she subsisted for many weeks mostly eating military rations called MREs, Lennon was craving real food, especially Mexican fare. She’s already gotten to have her first chile relleno.

A rainbow on St. Croix.
Finding the beauty after the hurricanes. A rainbow on St. Croix. Photo courtesy of Erin Lennon.

And she was thrilled to get back to her dog, Katrina, who is named after yet another hurricane. Lennon adopted Katrina on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. She’s an 85-pound Malamute, who greeted Lennon by crawling into her lap and sitting on her. Katrina’s message to Lennon was clear:

“You’re not going anywhere.”