When Deb McGrew first heard that hospitals in the northern part of Galveston County were not taking patients, and possibly even closing during Hurricane Harvey, she knew something needed to be done.
“We realized we had a critical need,” said McGrew, UTMB’s chief operating officer. “We were concerned about having services open in the area.”
It was Aug. 27 and Harvey, downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm but no less deadly, was still dumping historic quantities of rain all along the southeast Texas coast.
“A lot of people who staff that campus are from the communities that were hit so hard,” Dr. Doug Tyler, chairman of the Department of Surgery, said.
McGrew had called Tyler because a surgeon was needed at the League City Campus. Those on call could not get to the hospital due to flooding all across the area.
Tyler agreed to staff the hospital himself, along with senior residents Drs. Chris Guidrey and Pablo Padilla.
“He said, ‘I’ll go.’” McGrew said. “Just like that.”
But it wasn’t that simple.
Roads, highways and entire neighborhoods had been swallowed up by local bayous. Roads that normally were easily traveled were now only accessible by high water vehicles or flat-bottomed boats. Residents turned to the highest points of their homes, which often was the roof, to escape flood waters. And as water continued to pour down, seemingly all available emergency vehicles, boats and helicopters were in use rescuing stranded residents.
UTMB police officers worked with neighboring agencies to try and find safe alternative routes from Galveston to League City, many of which were found through neighborhoods, Lt. Noel Layer said.
McGrew contacted UTMB’s Business Operations and Facilities department and asked if they had any type of vehicle that could get Tyler through the deep water and onto the League City Campus.
What they decided to use was a large Ford F-550, which picked up Tyler and Guidrey in front of the Jennie Sealy Hospital in Galveston and began the trip toward League City.
And while Tyler’s years of education, training and practice have prepared him for anything as a surgeon, it could have never prepared him for what he was going to see along Interstate 45.
Near Dickinson, flood water at times was as high as the running board on the truck he was riding in, boats and kayaks traveled along the interstate, and hundreds of people were stranded on the grassy hills and overpasses.
“People would get to the water and then turnaround and drive on the wrong side of the road,” Layer said. “We weren’t sure we were going to make it at first.”
When the crew arrived at the League City Campus, Tyler was shocked to see just how bad the flooding was around the campus.
“It was a little bit of an island,” Tyler said.
During his four-day stay at the League City Campus, Tyler performed a number of surgeries—some for flood-related injuries, others not. While the hospital was surrounded by water, patients continued to come in—some on foot, some in dump trucks, and others in the National Guard’s high-water vehicles.
“We had to be prepared for anything,” Tyler said.
Tyler credits the ability to do so to how well all three UTMB campuses worked together.
“We had a lot of creative solutions to our problems during the storm,” McGrew said. “It was very important to us that we stayed viable and open to our community.”
And it just wasn’t one person or one department who made those creative solutions possible.
“Sometimes the glamour of taking care of patients is what gets recognized, but it took people from all across UTMB to keep things functioning,” Tyler said. “From facilities management, nursing, food services, and environmental services—it took us all to keep everything running so successfully.”