Perusing one of my respiratory journals in early 2001, I happened upon an article about a Disaster Medical Assistance Team. I was intrigued. I always wanted to help my country in some way without having to go to war and this seemed the perfect venue. But what was entailed? I don’t camp and I’m not a risk taker. Despite this, I looked for the DMAT team nearest my home in Maine. This turned out to be the Massachusetts-1 DMAT. I e-mailed the Deputy Commander for some information and received a pile of paperwork nearly a foot thick. I tediously filled out every page and submitted the pile to be reviewed by Washington D.C. headquarters. Unfortunately, it was September 10, 2001. It was a busy day in D.C. so my application took a while to be reviewed and my application accepted. I knew no one on the team. I received an e-mail notification about a field training exercise: rappelling off of the Bourne Bridge to Cape Cod. Afraid of heights but needing to meet team members, I acquiesced and went to the training. I met the most knowledgeable, friendly, accommodating people in the world and I successfully completed the training. I kept an eye on the news, not knowing what circumstances were triggers for deployment.
Time passed with no calls and the possibility of deploying was pushed to the perimeter of my mind until late Christmas Eve 2002. I received a phone call at 1 a.m. asking if I wanted to go to Guam. GUAM?? I had never even heard of GUAM!! Half asleep, I said “Um, sure” and was told to pack and head immediately to the meeting site in Boston. Guam had apparently been hit by a super-typhoon and was devastated. We arrived after 2 days of traveling and went about setting up 2 clinics on either side of the island and supplementing the civilian hospital staff, allowing them to deal with their own families. Two weeks with no clean water, sparse food and living conditions with mold abounding and I couldn’t have been happier. Long hours, little sleep and I had found my calling. The people’s appreciation was amazing and I realized I was part of something big – the best group of medical professionals on Earth.
A New Calling
I vowed I would go anywhere with this group. Little did I know that the following year, I would get another late night call, this time the day after Christmas to go to Iran, which had suffered a devastating earthquake. Without hesitation I replied “Yes” and we were on our way. Once there we set up a mobile hospital with an operating room facility, pharmacy and intensive care capabilities in 5 hours and began treating patients. To date, I have also been deployed to Louisiana, Mississippi, Haiti, New York, Georgia, Alabama, Massachusetts and California.
As a respiratory therapist, the difficulties encountered with all of these deployments included limited resources like oxygen and disposable equipment, especially the first few days and minimal versatility to the equipment, such as ventilators. When working with DMAT, therapists must be able to improvise, use their knowledge and expertise and sometimes jerry-rig to accomplish the task at hand. This has required me, personally, to hand ventilate children in Iran for 16 hours and in Haiti for 19 hours until evacuation could be arranged. Nothing is more rewarding than being responsible for saving the lives of those in desperate need, victims of disasters, both domestically and internationally.
Recently, in addition to our Hurricane Sandy response, several DMATs were deployed to Oklahoma for the tornadoes that struck so violently. Within hours, teams set up mobile sites for definitive patient care.
Our deployments occur within hours of the disaster strike so we are always at the ready. We commit for at least 2 weeks at a time and there are 60+ teams across the U.S., including teams specific for animal care. There is nothing more enriching than being a part of a group of selfless humanitarian healthcare providers who go to the greatest lengths imaginable to help their fellow man in times of severe disaster and I am a proud member of the MA-1 DMAT.
To get more information about DMAT and application guidelines, requirements and processes, contact your local DMAT which can easily be found with an internet search.
David Kissin is a respiratory care practitioner IV at Maine Medical Center, Portland, Maine, and part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Disaster Medical System.