Community rallies around Lee Health employees for Hurricane Ian recoveryJan 24, 2023 08:00AM ● By Kathy Montgomery
Lee Health employees outside the hospital.
At 6 a.m. Sept. 28, Sabrina Gorton, the nurse manager of the emergency department at HealthPark Medical Center, and her team reported for duty, getting ready for what the storm might bring. By 9:15 a.m., the hospital had lost power and the doors were shuttered.
Gorton wondered how they would help people if they could not get in but did not think about how people might be able to help them as the dangerous storm headed their way.
Even as the hospital lost water pressure, they lost contact with their own families and watched water flood their cars in the parking lot and approach the hospital, her team found ingenious ways to keep things clean, even without running water, and to conserve power, food and water.
When the storm passed HealthPark, many team members still had not heard from their own families. Still, they moved back downstairs to prepare for patients to arrive at the emergency room. The first 15 survivors brought to the emergency department after the storm passed arrived by boat and had been rescued from rooftops, with many submerged in salt water for a long time.
“The trauma and emotions of watching that are still with us,” Gorton said. “This is very much a community hospital, and watching our community being wiped away was devastating.”
Nancy Travis, director of obstetrics at Cape Coral, had about 16 patients and their families to care for during the storm. To keep patients calm, they played soothing music and set up essential oil diffusers. However, as the intensity of the storm increased, they began to move patients into hallways and away from windows. When water and debris entered the hospital, they jumped in to keep the hospital clean.
Weeks later, Travis and her team are still recovering. One member of her team lost everything when their house flooded. Another team member was severely injured while cleaning up their home and is still recuperating. All of them are dealing with the ordeal they experienced and the resulting anxiety and stress. Taking care of people and each other is how they cope.
“That’s what healthcare workers do,” Travis said. “We take care of each other and are always available to help those out there who want help.”
At that Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Lee Health’s Golisano Children’s Hospital, the team received the order to evacuate the babies after the power and water went out and the storm passed. This massive undertaking involved organization and coordination with providers, parents, doctors, nurses, transportation units, and other hospital staff throughout Florida. The NICU team at Golisano had to consider the stability of each baby, the health services each needed, and the viability of the length and mode of travel. Some babies were evacuated by ambulances; others were taken by helicopter.
Within 32 hours, 62 babies were evacuated, with another 10 being sent home with their families.
Mariah Washington, whose infant daughter Isabella was recovering from her third heart surgery at the NICU, learned her daughter was being transferred to a hospital in Miami. Even through the anguish of being unable to be with her daughter, she recognized the team’s dedication.
“The commitment and bravery it takes to leave your loved ones at home to care for someone else’s cherished family member during a tragedy is genuinely amazing,” she said.
Lee Health is the largest employer in Lee County, with more than 15,000 employees, many of them personally impacted by Hurricane Ian. In recognition of the impact of the hurricane on Lee Health staff, Lee Health Foundation established the Lee Health Employee Relief Fund to help with immediate post-storm needs.Initial benefits included working with the United Way for housing, gift cards, clothing, food, utilities, etc., extended childcare, free Lyft rides, deductibles for damaged vehicles, free telehealth, and mental health support.
“We will keep showing up for you every day,” said Carly Majewskiu, nurse manager for the NICU at Golisano Children’s Hospital. “We could not be more grateful that our community is helping us now.”
Donations are still needed for ongoing support into 2023 that will include legal assistance, mental health resiliency, support with finances/taxes, and more. To learn more about how Lee Health staff was impacted by the storm and to donate, visit swfltogether.org.
Kathy Montgomery has been writing for more than 30 years about Southwest Florida and the interesting people who live in the region.