Hurricane Harvey was one of the costliest natural disasters in United States history. The town of Nederland, Texas, northeast of Houston, received more than 60 inches of rain, the heaviest rainfall ever logged in the U.S. Television coverage enabled outsiders to see the magnitude of devastation along the Texas Gulf Coast and especially in Houston. Much worse, however, was the emotional pain suffered by thousands, many of whom lost everything—homes, cars, pets, and, in some cases, loved ones. During and after the storm, many human interest stories emerged, one of which I relate here.
When I awoke the day after Harvey hit Houston, I pulled back the curtain on my 3rd-floor balcony and was stunned. All I could see was water. No roads were visible, and the cars in the parking lot below were almost completely submerged. For the first few days after the storm, I was a captive in my own apartment.
At that time, I was on an internal medicine team at Lyndon B. Johnson General Hospital. All classes and clerkships were cancelled until further notice, and my medical school ordered all students to remain at home. Yet it felt improper to do so when I was able-bodied and capable of serving. I was determined to get back to the hospital to help with its recovery efforts. As soon as the roads were passable, my attending physician granted me permission to rejoin the team.
The hospital had been crippled by the storm. The building was on limited access, which meant that visitors were not allowed, and the only way in or out was through the Emergency Center. Throughout the hospital, trash cans had been placed to collect rainwater from leaking ceiling tiles. Some of the nursing units had been closed. Patients had been relocated to the driest areas. The on-call rooms were in complete disarray; marooned residents, fellows, and attending physicians had eaten, groomed, and slept in them for days. This new situation in the hospital made it clear that returning early had been the right decision, and it gave me an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to the recovery efforts.
One of the patients, a man in his 50s who had undergone a below-knee amputation, was ready to be discharged from the hospital, but he insisted that he could not go home until he got a wheelchair. The case manager had worked hard to get him one, but the best option she could offer was a 4-point walker. The patient had experienced difficulty using a walker during his physical therapy, and he feared falling. A wheelchair was the only workable solution.
My attending physician told the patient that he remembered having seen a wheelchair stashed away in a building across town, and he promised to check on it. Fortunately, he found the chair exactly where he thought it was. The next day, our team cleaned it thoroughly to get it ready for the patient. With only one leg, he had a long road ahead of him, and we took pride in smoothing the way to his rehabilitation.
An intern and I delivered the chair to the patient, who was waiting in a friend's pickup truck outside the Emergency Center. When he opened the door, I didn't recognize him at first. Patients look quite different when they trade hospital gowns for street clothes.
The patient wanted to test the chair before leaving, so I locked the brakes, and he carefully ambulated to it, using his walker and the truck door for support. He unlocked the chair's brakes and rolled forward and backward a few times. A roller coaster of emotions crossed his face: delight, satisfaction, and then tearful joy. He was immensely pleased and appreciative, and he gave us each a strong handshake.
It took all that I had to hold back my tears. Our city was in chaos, the hospital was on life support, and resources were stretched thin. Nevertheless, I was fortunate to have such an emotional and sincere experience in a moment of service to a fellow human being. It reminded me that medicine is a calling, not a business, and that physicians must always place the patient first. And I learned that even the simplest gesture in the right circumstance—like retrieving an old, forgotten wheelchair—can be the kindness that moves mountains.
Submissions for Peabody’s Corner should 1) focus on the interpersonal aspects of a specific patient-doctor experience; 2) be written in storybook fashion; 3) contain no references; and 4) not exceed 5 double-spaced typescript pages.
From: UTHealth McGovern Medical School, Houston, Texas 77030
Mr. Savage is a 4th-year medical student.