HOUSTON — “Each one (of the volunteer nurses) left their own life to travel to Houston to serve others — for free. Could I afford this trip financially? Not at all. None of us could. But what we gained from these 4 days is more precious than anything I’ve done before. The gratitude from the people who lost everything in #hurricaneharvey, the looks in their eyes when you helped them, the hugs and kisses… I will remember this for the rest of my life,” wrote Jamie Smith in a Facebook post after spending time in Houston volunteering to help those impacted by Hurricane Harvey.
A Meigs County resident and 14 year nursing veteran, Smith is an Educator for the Emergency Department at Marietta Memorial Hospital, as well as spending time still working in the emergency room.
Smith and fellow ER nurse Chris Patey, of Marietta, recently traveled to Houston, Texas, spending time volunteering in an emergency shelter for those impacted by Hurricane Harvey, staffing the emergency room along with other volunteers.
While Smith said she felt called to help those impacted by Harvey, there were still obstacles which could have stood in the way of making the trip.
“Every excuse I had suddenly disappeared. It told me I needed to go,” said Smith. It was then she made the decision to go.
As a member of the Emergency Nurses Association, Smith explained that she received emails stating that help was needed to staff emergency rooms which had been set up in shelters in Texas following Hurricane Harvey. She had also seen posts of her friend Amanda (Musser) Christian who lives in the Victoria, Texas area of the impact of the hurricane.
Never having been to Texas, and not having flown through a major airport before, Smith admitted there were nerves, particularly with plane issues before leaving on the trip.
Arriving in Houston, Smith and Patey went to the NRG Center, which Smith described as the biggest building she had ever been in. At its maximum, the NRG Center housed 8,500 evacuees. As of last week it was down to 2,300, including around 300 children. There were people of all ages, from newborn to the elderly, as well as pets at the shelter.
Inside the shelter was an emergency room, urgent care, eye clinic, dental clinic and much more which provided free services to any of the evacuees who needed them. The emergency room was operated with volunteers, using donated medical supplies. There was a pharmacy on site, as well as CVS and Walgreens set up outside the center filling needed prescriptions at no cost. The eye clinic was set up by a Houston optometrist who’s office had been flooded. The equipment not impacted by the flooding was moved to the center to conduct exams and provide glasses to the evacuees.
Working 12 hour shifts, the ER volunteers saw everything from cold symptoms to chest pains, a woman who was having a stroke and psychiatric issues. At the end of their shifts, police officers would escort them back to their hotel, keeping them safe in the area.
Many people had been without their medications since the hurricane hit, leading to some of the issues which were being addressed in the ER. There were also cases of overdoses, as even following a hurricane an area is not immune to the drug epidemic. Smith recalled a police officer bringing a young boy into the ER after he was found crying in a vehicle where his parents had been passed out with drug paraphernalia in the vehicle.
“There are some stories that stay with you,” said Smith.
On the last day a Vietnam veteran, Frankie, came in to the ER. Frankie’s house trailed had been flooded and destroyed as a result of the hurricane, leading to him being brought to the shelter, explained Smith. Having lost a portion of his hand in the war, he suffered from PTSD and had been without medication for some time following the hurricane. When he was brought in he explained that he did not have anything but had lost the little that he did have in the storm. “He was just sobbing,” explained Smith. She sat with him, listened and cried with him before he was transferred to a local hospital to receive further help.
“It was so different,” said Smith of volunteering at the shelter ER. “There was no money involved. You were able to just care for people — some of them just needed to talk or a hug. It was about people and doing what you could to help them.”
As she sat on the plane at the airport in Atlanta heading back home to Ohio, Smith said her thoughts went back to those she had seen in Houston.
“I was relieved to be going home, but so many, like Frankie, didn’t have a home to go back to,” said Smith, holding back tears as she talked.
A mother of four (Grant, 19, Cole, 16, Mia, 7, and Adrian, 2), Smith said it was hard to be away from her own children, but that they were part of her motivation to go.
“I missed them like crazy, but I also felt like they were learning an important lesson about serving others from me,” said Smith.
Asked if she would do in again, Smith did not hesitate to say “yes.”
Sarah Hawley is the managing editor of The Daily Sentinel.