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Johns Hopkins Experts Jump Into Action After Hurricanes Through Federal Roles

Michael, Millin, M.D., during his
deployment to Puerto Rico

For Gai Cole, Dr.P.H., driving into San Juan after sunset eight days after Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm brought back memories of his service in the U.S. Army when he was deployed to Sarajevo in the 1990s. “The place just looked almost post-apocalyptic,” says Cole, who is CEPAR’s senior advisor for strategic planning. “It seemed lifeless … you couldn’t see any people in the dark buildings and homes.” It was a much different scene at the casino next to the convention center in San Juan. “The casino was fully operational with patrons eating and gambling,” he recalls. “It was a very strange contrast.”

Cole was one of several employees from Johns Hopkins who left his home, family and job to deploy in response to the aftermath of recent hurricanes. Cole and six others worked as members of the federal disaster medical assistance teams (DMATs) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Michael Millin, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of emergency medicine, heeded the call to serve as a chief medical officer with a DMAT, heading to Puerto Rico only about two weeks after returning from a similar deployment to Florida in response to Hurricane Irma. Millin was stationed in Comerio, a rural, mountainous area in the central eastern part of Puerto Rico. Millin was part of an 11-member team that saw about 400 patients during their 12 days working at a makeshift clinic at the local mayor’s office. The team treated wounds, skin and eye infections, bites from stray dogs, diarrhea from lack of clean drinking water, and chronic medical conditions. Millin also made house calls to people living in the mountains. “There was a patient I saw who was in a small home, and right next door, a home had slid off into the mountainside,” Millin says. “The power infrastructure was entirely down with trees down everywhere, and this was four or five weeks after the hurricane.”

Cole, who also deployed to Florida for Hurricane Irma, served as the administrative officer stationed at the Hospital de la Concepción in San Germán, a rural, mountainous region on the west side of Puerto Rico. Cole coordinated all of the team’s logistics within the 500-year-old hospital, such as access to clinical systems and the hospital medication list, pay, time tracking, travel vouchering, and patient throughput and billing. In the past five years, the hospital, Cole says, had invested in structural resilience and disaster preparedness and recovery efforts. These included a robust generator that could run on recycled fuel and a water filtration system. “So while they were only cooking one meal a day at first for patients and staff, and they did suffer some structural damage, they were able to sustain hospital operations very effectively,” Cole says. He adds that Hospital de la Concepción was the only hospital in the area that was able to remain fully open. “What I witnessed in Puerto Rico, was a genuine need for help. There was an exigent need for medical support, electricity, water and food distribution, and law enforcement,” Cole says. He also describes how the lack of phone and internet service left his team removed from the rest of the world. “The shooting in Las Vegas happened, and I didn’t hear about it until the next day by word of mouth,” he says. “We were in an information blackout, just focused on the mission and the patients.” 

Millin says his team built relationships with local physicians, pharmacists and activists to help better stabilize the community of Comerio. However, he believes the community will be affected for a long time. Millin, who responded after the Haiti earthquake says his time in Puerto Rico will be a defining moment in his life. “There’s a part of my heart that will always be in Puerto Rico,” Millin says. “There’s a part of my heart that still lives in Haiti. Every time I’ve deployed out, a part of me stays there because the work is so meaningful to me.”

Other Johns Hopkins providers and staff who deployed with DMATs in response to recent hurricanes include Christina Catlett, M.D., Edward Johnston, R.N., B.S.N., Jessica Katznelson, M.D., Brandon Parkyn, R.N., and Ben Bigelow, a Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine medical student.

Check out details from some of their service in their own words in this article.

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