Recovering from disaster – the healthcare response

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It seems that every time we turn on the news we are bombarded with details about the latest catastrophic event. Internationally, stories like the Boston Marathon bombings, Hurricane Sandy, the factory collapse in Bangladesh and the most recent earthquakes in China overwhelm us with images of devastation, suffering and human tragedy. Although we are empathetic, we can also somehow remain detached from these occurrences because of our geographical distance.

But when it’s no longer happening ‘over there’ but in our own backyards, it’s a different story. This summer Canada has faced at least two major disasters as we witnessed Quebec’s Lac Mégantic train disaster and the Alberta floods.  As I write this column, the emergency relief efforts are ongoing and although these communities are returning to some state of calm and order, they will never be the same.

Many questions have been raised and remain unanswered as to how these types of calamities can be avoided and I’m sure as time goes on we will have new resources and prevention measures to target some of these occurrences, but the truth is that mother nature and human nature will continue to challenge us in new and different ways.

In July we also witnessed massive flooding in areas of downtown Toronto that were unprecedented. Images of flooding in the Don Valley with GO train commuters having to be evacuated by boat were equally dazzling and frightening. Thankfully there were few casualties but these extreme scenarios remind us that we need to be prepared for situations well beyond our normal scope of imagining.

How do we prepare for these disasters and how do we respond to them when they are occurring? These questions are a major challenge for everyone in the emergency response and health-care fields.

One of the biggest players in relief and disaster response in the country is the Canadian Red Cross, which is part of one of the largest humanitarian networks in the world. They help vulnerable communities in Canada affected by emergencies and disasters and work in partnership with first responders, emergency managers and public officials to support their response activities. They were front-line and centre on the scene in both Alberta and Lac Mégantic.

But they are also at work before a disaster happens planning for the unexpected. One of their areas of focus is training their volunteer base. In this issue we look at the rigorous and extensive training that they provide for their volunteers and medical personnel before they dispatch them to respond to a crisis situation. The mock hospital, emergency department, operating rooms and housing for medical staff are all carefully planned and need to be executed under the harshest and most chaotic conditions. In times of crisis, a level head, a calm and dedicated team and a detailed plan, carefully executed, are critical to success.

And after the initial relief efforts comes the cleanup and restoration. The Canadian Red Cross recently outlined how it will use generous donor dollars to help affected Albertans transition from the relief to the recovery phase following the devastating floods. To-date, generous individuals, organizations and companies have donated more than $25.3 million to their flood relief efforts.

They have also collected some $5 million in support for Lac Mégantic, and these funds will make it possible to provide direct assistance to those affected by the disaster.

In this issue we also look at the emergency response of Alberta Health Services (AHS) which coordinated the massive medical relief efforts and also a great deal of the general clean-up operations in the province. They dispatched volunteers that stepped into action performing all kinds of functions, above and beyond the call of duty in the areas most affected by the disaster.

“I had the opportunity to meet the compassionate and committed health professionals who are providing care, comfort and support,” said AHS President and CEO, Dr. Chris Eagle, in a statement that was sent to staff, physicians and volunteers during the height of the flood response in June. “In Canmore, I was pleased to tour the hospital alongside Premier Alison Redford and members of her Cabinet. The staff were in good humour, and doing a remarkable job. Everyone – from emergency department physicians and obstetricians, to nurses and other health care staff – was intently focused on their patients, in addition to cleaning and repairing their hospital.”

Thanks to their hard work, organization and teamwork, the hospital in Canmore was well on its way to recovery, just days after it was almost completely surrounded by flood waters.

“With the emergency now subsiding somewhat in most communities, our focus is shifting to recovery. The situation is no less urgent,” said Eagle.   “Thousands of people have yet to return home, where they will face the physical task of cleanup and restoration, and the mental challenges of dealing with what they’ve been through and what is yet to come. This is a marathon, not a sprint – we will be there to help them with their health needs every step of the way.”

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