Towns flooded. Interstates shut down. And hospitals closed. Over the course of nine days, the staff of Atrium Health’s Carolinas MED-1 unit were the only major healthcare option in a 50-mile radius for a section of eastern North Carolina. This is the story of how they came together to provide this community with round-the-clock care at their most vulnerable hour.

News | one month ago

Becoming a Family in the Family Dollar Parking Lot

Towns flooded. Interstates shut down. And hospitals closed. Stationed in eastern North Carolina after Hurricane Florence the region, the staff of Atrium Health’s Carolinas MED-1 quickly became a tight-knit crew, delivering babies, airlifting more than 30 patients to area hospitals and providing round-the-clock care to a community at its most vulnerable hour.

 

One day, when she’s older, Avah will begin to wonder about her unique middle name. She’ll ask her mother, Keyana McIntyre, “Why is my middle name ‘Storm’?” She’ll then turn to her firstborn baby girl and tell her the impossible story of how Avah’s fashionably late entrance coincided with a hurricane named Florence. And she’ll explain how Florence also stubbornly held on, dumping feet of rain on the coasts of both Carolinas, closing roads and scrapping Keyana’s plan to give birth to Avah the traditional way – at a Wilmington hospital. And instead, Avah was welcomed to this world – healthy and happy – in the parking lot of a Family Dollar store in Burgaw, NC, by the staff of Atrium Health’s Carolinas MED-1 mobile hospital unit.

This is just one of the amazing stories that the staff of Carolinas MED-1 – about 32 dedicated teammates – will take with them after a career-defining deployment to Pender County, where it was the only operating hospital in a 50-mile radius. The community’s traditional hospital – Pender Memorial Hospital – had closed after the hurricane tore through the region and MED-1 served as the main provider of care for the county for about a week and a half.

Getting the Call

Andrew Godfrey, MD, EMT-P, who is the EMS Fellow in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Carolinas Medical Center and MED-1 staff physician, didn’t know exactly what to expect as the team was called to deploy to the coast. But just getting there proved to be quite difficult. The team left Charlotte around noon on Sunday, Sept. 16, but had to stop overnight in Raleigh due to the limited road accessibility.

“Driving down from Raleigh to Burgaw along the coast, we saw areas with significant wind damage and storm damage,” Dr. Godfrey said. “We saw lots of trees down, boats capsized, roofs missing sections … The most eerie part was driving down a section of I-40 closed to public traffic near Pender County. It was just us and the North Carolina Highway Patrol and some N.C. Department of Transportation crews working to reinforce a few areas where the road was washed out.”

The town of Burgaw, where they were instructed to set up, was in OK shape, and there was an available parking long in the center of town in front of the Family Dollar that was set to be the operating base for the next several days. But other areas did not fare very well. The local emergency medical community welcomed their arrival with open arms (and big hugs) before the MED-1 team even began setting up its operation. Many paramedics told them how hard it had been to not be able to everything they could for the patients needing their assistance. Many had been working for four or five days straight and had struggled to be able to provide the appropriate level of care needed for some of their patients.

Community in Need 

After setting up, word got out quickly of their arrival. Three people inquired about care as the team set up the MED-1 facilities – and were appropriately triaged. And soon after, a line began to form in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot across the street. Someone placed a homemade sign in front of Pender Memorial Hospital – informing anyone who needed care to instead reroute to the Family Dollar parking lot.

In fact, Kristy Haynes, manager of operations for MED-1, said that in the 10 days that MED-1 staff were up and operating, they served more than 900 patients – which is about two-and-a-half times the typical patient volume at Pender Memorial Hospital’s emergency department. The team delivered Avah Storm and another baby, performed a surgery and conducted several other minor procedures to patients including splinting fractures, draining an abscess and reducing a dislocated shoulder.

And since the roads to New Hanover Regional Medical Center (an Atrium Health partner) – which also manages Pender Memorial Hospital – were closed, the MED-1 team had to coordinate the evacuations of 31 patients by helicopter to other medical facilities. In fact, Abby Weems, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Carolinas Medical Center and Disaster and Operations Medicine Fellow, was awarded a toy helicopter by Mike Stanford, operations manager with MEDIC, after flying out five patients in one night during an eight-hour period.

“The severity of the pathology we saw was surprisingly high,” Dr. Godfrey says. “We delivered two babies, but we also intubated two people, treated multiple people for sepsis and septic shock, had one evening with four simultaneous cardiac patients, and operated on a sick diabetic patient.”

A Servant's Heart 

MED-1 staff is comprised of physicians, nurses, advanced clinical practitioners, respiratory therapists, counselors, care support staff during this deployment. And once deployed, the team mindset really takes hold.

“Everybody checks their egos at the door,” Haynes said. “We come from various backgrounds but become immediate friends. It’s the most amazing teamwork I’ve ever seen.”
Even more amazing were the patients, Haynes says. One mother-to-be arrived at the mobile hospital 19 weeks pregnant and scared that something had happened to her baby. Haynes smiled and took her hand as she underwent an ultrasound. A few minutes later, the exam showed her that her baby was just fine – earning Haynes a big hug from a relieved patient and an experience she won’t soon forget.

“It was so rewarding, being able to care for them, after how much they lost,” Haynes says. “The people in the community were so kind, appreciative and grateful.”

Dr. Godfrey says he remembers commenting to his team after his first shift on the first day that he had “more people thanked me for seeing them than thanked me in my entire previous medical career. Even those patients who had to undergo a painful procedure were appreciative of the care we gave them.”

Coordinated Care

The MED-1 staff worked closely with several organizations to facilitate and expedite care including: Pender Memorial Hospital’s staff including Dr. Heather Davis, chief of staff, New Hanover Regional Medical Center, NHRMC’s transfer center and its AirLink/VitaLink Critical Care Transport, Pender EMS & Fire, MEDIC (Mecklenburg EMS Agency), paramedics and EMTs from Forsyth, Guilford and McDowell counties, Vidant Health’s EastCare and Duke Health’s Life Flight medical helicopter teams, and the State Bureau of Investigation and N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement agents for providing security for the whole team.

“Every single nurse, tech, medic, logistics teammate, ACP, police officer and doctor demonstrated what it means to serve,” Dr. Godfrey says. “Serving with MED-1 was truly an honor and will always be one of the best experiences of my life.”

The staff would like to provide a special thanks to the staff of the Burgaw Piggly Wiggly, who kept the team fed, and Family Dollar, who refused payment several times that the crew shopped there, as well as local churches who also donated food and other items “like we were members of their families.”