Meghan Duggan’s voice wavers and she turns her head away, composing herself.
Normally talkative and engaging, Duggan, a UTC graduate ’16 with a master’s of science in nursing, tries to describe her feelings as she watches Hurricane Irma bear down on South Florida. A certified registered nurse anesthetist at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, she’s suffering a painful case of déjà vu only days after Hurricane Harvey blasted through her city.
“It’s hard to watch people suffer,” she says after a moment, her voice still a bit wobbly. “It’s hard to feel like you want to help and you can’t. Being part of the medical profession, I think you have a helpful heart, but I think you take on a lot of those feelings, too.”
Her friend Katie Springer, who also earned an MSN from UTC in 2016 and is also a certified registered nurse anesthetist at Texas Children’s, has a physical reaction when she watches news about Irma—something she can’t force herself to do very often.
“Literally, arm hair is standing up right now thinking about it,” she says.
Their reactions are well-deserved. The pair held down the fort at Texas Children’s while Harvey dumped more than 40 inches of rain, displaced more than 30,000 and killed 14 in Houston. Part of the hospital’s Pediatric Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine team, they were already at work when floodwaters began to rise but, with the hospital virtually an island surrounded by water, other doctors, nurses, and staff were stranded elsewhere.
“We told them, ‘You all stay home with your families and your kids,’” Duggan says.
Springer arrived at the hospital about 9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 25, the day Harvey made landfall on the Texas coast; Duggan got there about 6 a.m. Saturday. Both stayed through the weekend working 12 hours on 12 hours off. Duggan left about noon Monday, Springer about 9 a.m. Tuesday.
Over those few days, time tended to swirl around itself.
“We kept asking each other, ‘What is today?’” Duggan says.
With water all around them, no badly injured people could even get to their emergency room, they say, so they spent the days making sure patients in the hospital were safe, both medically, mentally and personally.
“We were not in hot, major action,” Duggan says.
And, in some ways, that was worse. Being out of the major devastation, unable to use the skills they learned at UTC, made them feel somewhat helpless.
“Just that survivor’s guilt,” Duggan says. “It’s that feeling that, while we made it out with no scrapes or cuts, but look at everybody else. Some people are really devastated. Sitting on the roof of their house, waiting for rescue.”
With text messages pinging and Amber alerts screeching through their cellphones, not to mention constant watch on emails and social media updates from co-workers, friends and family, it “was really challenging to not be out there,” Springer adds.
Patients in Texas Children’s were effusive in their praise for the care they were receiving, but Springer and Duggan were embarrassed by the praise.
“All these people were like, ‘Thank you so much for staying and helping,’” Springer says. “But we wanted to be like, ‘Please stop thanking me. I feel like I’m doing a very small part when your home is being … You don’t have a home anymore.’”
Waters have mostly receded at this point and the hospital is running as normal, but things are definitely not normal in Houston. Reeling and shellshocked, residents are reaching out more than ever, trying to connect with others, desperate to find something to offset the sense of confusion.
“We went back to work a couple of days ago but, as things are going back to normal—or trying to—everyone is asking, ‘How are you?’” Duggan says. “It’s not that normal, ‘How are you?’ Like, ‘How’s your day?’ It’s like, ‘No, really, how are you? How’s your family?’ You pause and you wait and you’re like, ‘I hope they say they’re OK,’ because you don’t know.”
Like the city and its residents, Duggan and Springer are recovering in their own way. They must turn to lessons learned at UTC, their careers in medicine and from treating children.
“When you’re so close to such devastation, not even recently with the hurricane but every day—especially with us working with kids,” Springer says, “you’ll see things that break your heart all the time … Sometimes you just have to find that way to be compassionate and have empathy but still be able to take care of yourself and separate a little bit.”