UCHealth in Houston: Hurricane nurses bring patients peace

September 11, 2017

They call themselves the “hurricane nurses.”

They’re a team of relief nurses from around the country working 14-hour shifts with no days off in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. They are sleeping in spare hospital beds at Conroe Regional Medical Center just outside of Houston.

A group of volunteers who call themselves 'the hurricane nurses' stepped up to volunteer after the Houston hurricanes. Here, they pose together in a Houston hospital.
Rachel Kuker (second from right) volunteered to work as a relief nurse at a hospital near Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Photo courtesy of Rachel Kuker.

As Hurricane Irma swirls up from Florida to Georgia today, UCHealth nurse Rachel Kuker is working with nurses from those states who volunteered to come to Texas. Now, as they tend to patients in Houston, they wonder what kind of damage their own homes and families have faced.

The hurricane nurses bring comfort and find that long after the rain stops, the challenges from the storms will continue.

“I had a patient this morning who was ready to be discharged, but he didn’t have anywhere to go,” Kuker, 31, said over the weekend.

The man told her that Harvey had flooded his home and he was staying with friends. But they had no way to come get him. So for the moment, he had to stay at the hospital.

Conroe also has received patients from other hospitals and long-term care facilities that had suffered damage from Harvey.

Kuker has found that her volunteer assignment with a relief agency called Health Trust has been anything but easy. Patients are uncomfortable and uncertain about the days ahead. Kuker expects to be volunteering at Conroe for two weeks. She arrived there on Sept. 1.

“I’m definitely exhausted, but I’m hanging in there,” Kuker said.

While the lack of comfort and the reverberations from Harvey’s destruction cause her headaches every day, she has been overwhelmed by the gratitude everyone expresses.

Kuker is wearing her UCHealth scrubs at the Texas hospital and the other nurses wear uniforms from their home hospitals. The uniforms trigger great conversations about the work the nurses are doing.

“Every single person who finds out where we’re from is so incredibly appreciative, from nurses to doctors and patients,” Kuker said.

“We don’t see Harvey’s destruction and the work we’re doing here is very similar to the work I do at home. But because of us, the nurses here are able to leave the hospital and go take care of their issues at home,” she said.

Kuker worked on the same unit all last week and had a powerful experience.

“A little lady touched my heart. She was wanting to die and her family wasn’t ready,” Kuker said.

When Kuker first met the elderly patient, she was angry and frustrated and she felt no one was listening to her. Nurses have special training to consider their patients’ lives, not just their vital signs.

“I spent a lot of time talking with my patient and her family about the goals of care and what the future looked like,” Kuker said. “Even though the family was not ready to move on to her next stage of life, it was absolutely my job to make sure that we remembered (the patient’s) wishes.

“It was very touching. I was very attached to her,” Kuker said.

During a typical workweek at UCHealth University of Colorado hospital, Kuker never works six days in a row. But the upside of her relief work in Houston was bonding with the woman and her family at a critical time in their lives.

“By the end, she was smiling and she was so sweet. She became as peaceful as could be,” Kuker said.

“I shed some tears when I had to say goodbye, but she thanked me for taking care of her. And I told her it was a pleasure. I got to know her family and they were so appreciative. That was really special. I guess that’s why we do what we do.”


About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.