In March 2019, Cyclone Idai struck the densely-populated southeast African country of Mozambique, claiming more than 1,000 lives, destroying infrastructure and displacing hundreds of thousands. Within hours, Atrium Health medical groups teamed up with Team Rubicon to provide emergency medical care.

News | 20 days ago

Doctors Fly to Mozambique Following Deadly Cyclone to Serve Communities in Need

In March 2019, Cyclone Idai struck the densely-populated southeast African country of Mozambique, claiming more than 1,000 lives, destroying infrastructure and displacing hundreds of thousands. Within hours, Atrium Health medical groups teamed up with Team Rubicon to provide emergency medical care.

Photos Courtesy of Charl Folscher, Team Rubicon 

In March 2019, Cyclone Idai struck the densely-populated southeast African country of Mozambique, claiming more than 1,000 lives, destroying infrastructure and displacing hundreds of thousands. Within hours, Atrium Health medical groups teamed up with Team Rubicon to provide emergency medical care. 

After Cyclone Idai struck the densely-populated southeast African country of Mozambique, Atrium Health’s Operational and Disaster Medicine teams deployed to provide lifesaving care to those in need.

Abby Weems, MD, current Operational and Disaster Medicine Fellow for Atrium Health’s Department of Emergency Medicine, received news of her deployment during an otherwise normal shift at Atrium Health’s emergency department on March 23.

“I left the hospital that day at 4 p.m. — by 6 a.m. the following morning, I was on a plane to South Africa,” said Dr. Weems. 

Dr. Weems, who’s seen her fair share of the unexpected when working in the emergency department, explained that the scene upon arrival still managed to take her breath away. 

“I don’t know what I was expecting to see,” she said. “When we arrived, it was total devastation. More than a week and a half had passed since the storm, and all you could see was debris, downed power lines and major government buildings and hospitals destroyed.”

Teaming up to serve those in need 

The strongest cyclone on record in the Southern Hemisphere, Cyclone Idai claimed the lives of more than 1,000 victims, many of whom resided in Mozambique, and destroyed more than 90 percent of its port city of Beira.

Many of those in need of medical assistance, according to Dr. Weems, were children.

“We were seeing a lot of malaria, cholera and infected wounds from children stepping on nails,” she said. “After drinking dirty water for 10 days, surviving on maybe one meal a day, a lot of children were very sick with malnourishment, dehydration, pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses.”

Both malaria, a mosquito-borne illness causing flu-like symptoms, and cholera, a bacterial illness, can quickly turn fatal without prompt medical treatment, adds Dr. Weems. And in an area where tetanus shots are few and far between, infected wounds can become serious concerns.

Atrium Health’s emergency physicians worked in partnership with Team Rubicon in waves to provide mobile medical services including triage, clinical care and basic laboratory and pharmacy capabilities. Team Rubicon is a U.S. nonprofit organization of military veterans and first responders who rapidly deploy across the globe to provide emergency relief following disasters.

After her return home from the two-week trip, Dr. Weems recounts her experience abroad. Despite witnessing the storm’s brutal aftermath, she says she was inspired by the people of Mozambique and is called to serve in similar capacities in the future.

“The resiliency of the people there really struck me,” she says. “They were living in conditions I couldn’t imagine, yet everyone was more focused on helping their community members in need than helping themselves. Going somewhere where they appreciate basic care resets your whole mindset of working in medicine.”

Joining in relief efforts and recently returning from Mozambique is Erin E. Noste, MD, director of global emergency medicine at Atrium Health as well as Deputy Medical Director of Team Rubicon.

Dr. Noste – who led Team Rubicon’s efforts in gaining World Health Organization verification for deployable mobile medical teams – led both behind-the-scenes logistics and on-the-ground medical assistance in Mozambique. Dr. Noste joined the disaster response in Mozambique with Team Rubicon after working at Muhimbili National Hospital in Tanzania developing on a pre-hospital care system, where Atrium Health has a 10-year partnership with their Emergency Department.

David W. Callaway, MD, MPA, Atrium Health’s Professor of Emergency Medicine as well as Chief Medical Officer and Medical Director of Team Rubicon also aided with the Mozambique response with logistics and medical direction.

According to Dr. Callaway, whose prior experience in conflict zones and military relations lends to Team Rubicon’s efforts, serving those affected by crisis is a calling.

“I’ve been given great opportunity, and with that opportunity comes great responsibility,” says Dr. Callaway. “Oftentimes, people most affected by disaster are those already disenfranchised from society. If in these moments, we can show them that humanity does actually care, then we’ve made a difference.” 

According to Dr. Callaway, Atrium Health’s Operational and Disaster Medicine Fellowship program — one of just a few fellowships of its kind in the country — began in 2013, a time when fellowships were contracting across the nation. Since inception, the program has deployed Atrium Health doctors and nurses to Nepal, Guatemala, Honduras, Ecuador, Mexico, Dominica and more.

“The mission of the Operational and Disaster Medicine Division is to build resilience and provide emergency response capabilities globally,” says Dr. Callaway. “Team Rubicon is classified as a WHO [World Health Organization] type 1 mobile emergency medical team, which means we have the capacity to care for 100 patients a day with the conditions ranging from routine through emergency care.”

Dr. Noste added, “As a disaster relief organization, once this is accomplished our task is complete and then the development organizations come in to the area to help with system improvement for the country.”

Atrium Health’s disaster relief team also included:

  • John Roberts, MD, Operational and Disaster Medicine Fellowship Alum
  • Mike Mango, Atrium Health Pharmacist
  • Katie Poole, Cardinal Health Pharmacist

 

In April 2019, Team Rubicon was called upon again to respond with a medical team at the request of the Mozambique Ministry of Health after another cyclone delivered excessive rainfall causing severe flooding in the country. To learn more about Team Rubicon’s disaster relief efforts, visit teamrubiconusa.org/.

 

To learn more about Atrium Health’s Operational and Disaster Medicine program, visit our operational and disaster medicine webpage.