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In A Houston Emergency Room, It Was A Week Like No Other

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Dr. Winston Watkins, an internist at St. Joseph Medical Center in Houston, volunteered to do a shift in the ER to give his colleagues a break.

St. Joseph Medical Center is downtown Houston's only hospital, located just down the street from the convention center where thousands of evacuees have been staying since Harvey hit.

As of Friday, some doctors and nurses have been on the clock for almost a full week.

When you're working in an ER during a major natural disaster, nothing is routine. Trent Tankersley, director of emergency services at St. Joseph Medical Center, describes one tense situation after another in the hospital this week.

"We had a lady who the only vehicle heavy enough and strong enough to get to her through the floodwaters was a dump truck. She was pregnant. She was in labor. She was brought to the hospital in the dump bed of a dump truck, soaking wet.

"As we were getting her over to the women's building to get taken care of, we had a trauma come in. Shortly after that, we had a young man [who] came in that was having a stroke."

Tankersley showed up to work Saturday, and hasn't had what you'd consider "a break" since.

"Finally got to go home last night for a couple hours and do some laundry and then came right back. So it's been an interesting five or six days."

Some staff haven't been home since before Harvey struck

Kristen Benjamin, an associate chief nursing officer, has been right beside Tankersley.

"I think we're all working on adrenaline right now. We're working shift by shift. Some people are doing 15-, 16-hour shifts. We let them go off and sleep. They come back in."

They've seen more than 600 patients in the first five days. At times, they saw more patients in a few hours than they usually would in a whole day.

Many staffers have been stuck at the hospital, with no clear path to their homes. As floodwaters recede, their coworkers can finally come back.

"We're going to start transitioning staff out to get home so that they can check on their homes," Benjamin says. "Because some of them don't even know what's happening at their house right now because they haven't been home since Friday. So I don't even really have an idea if their house has been flooded or not."

His first day working in the ER

Among those staffing the ER are doctors from other departments pitching in, and even medical students, like Diana Johnson. She and her classmates are using a Google spreadsheet to organize shifts to help.

She's in her third year at Houston's McGovern Medical school. She's assisting Dr. Winston Watkins, an internist on his first day in the ER.

"One of the first patients that came in happened to be one of my own patients from my practice, and he came in with his foot hurting," he says."So Diana evaluated him and it turns out he has gangrene of his right fourth toe. And so we're going to admit him to the hospital."

"Some of them don't even know what's happening at their house right now because they haven't been home since Friday."

His house is underwater

Nurse Aaron Padron says he's never seen such a wide range of emotions in the ER.

"A lot of laughter crying yelling, tears," he says. "People that you work with you think that wouldn't crack just put their head in their hands and take a second to cry to themselves, or not to themselves, and wipe away the tears and get back to work."

He's been working here for most of the last week, except Saturday night.

"I went home on Saturday to sort of rescue my family before the floods got too high for me to get in or out," he says. "And then I came back Sunday and I've been working and sleeping here ever since."

Neighbors say his house is underwater. He says several others working in the ER saw their homes flooded. In a way, he says, it's all been a transformational experience.

"I think times of crisis, in times of emergency, in times of stress really have a way to bring people together and create a lot of camaraderie and really can push people to excel at what they do," he says.

Once reinforcements come in, he'll be able to rotate off his shift and find out just how much his family lost.

Copyright 2017 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

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