Volunteering in the Rockaways renewed my passion for nursing. I was able to help others in need who truly appreciated my time and skill. Of course it wasn’t my contribution alone that made the experience rewarding; it was hundreds of volunteers working together.
It required a team effort just getting to the ravaged beaches of Belle Harbor. Bridge closures, subway repairs and gas rations created overwhelming obstacles for volunteers. Gregory Solometo and Justin Kohn of Alliance Nursing arranged transportation for me and Greg navigated the chaos until we found a medical station where I could be of use.
Saint Francis parish school and parking lot had become command central for the community near Beach 129th Street. Each neighborhood had designated locations as hubs for residents to access supply donations, hot food and medical attention. Volunteers unloaded trucks filled with cases of bleach for cleaning water-damaged homes and batches of used clothes were being sorted in the school’s cafeteria. In the church parking lot a huge warming tent heated by generators held endless chafing trays full of homemade turkey meatballs, lasagna, and lentil soup, as well as perfectly decorated cupcakes and hot coffee for dessert. There was a smaller tent staffed with therapists for residents to grieve their losses. A man on the steps of the school directed confused and disoriented people to where they needed to be. He directed me to follow the hand-made Red Cross signs to the urgent care medical clinic on the second floor of the school.
When I got to the school’s infirmary there was no Red Cross presence and there were no FEMA volunteers. There were only boxes of medical supplies and a package of promotional airline-style blankets garnished with the Red Cross logo. The presence of branded goods gave the illusion that the clinic was staffed with official disaster relief Red Cross volunteers but that was not the case.
Behind the scenes was a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants clinic run by an amazing doctor who lives and practices near the affected area. Dr. John Meringolo was a multi-tasking superhero coordinating medication deliveries, seeing patients, and directing volunteers while putting smiles on everyone’s faces. Dr. George Sandor also volunteered his valuable time and was instrumental in treating patients. He performed our first “surgery” of the day for a man who had developed an infected toe after slogging around in sewage-filled floodwaters while gutting his basement.
Also volunteering was Michelle Archer who is a travel nurse from upstate New York currently working at Columbia Medical Center in the City. She noted that many visitors to the clinic needed blood sugar checks after their diabetes equipment and supplies had been damaged or destroyed in the flood. She quickly became an expert with in-home glucometers and instructed patients in their use. The clinic was stocked with replacement meters that patients could take with them.
Local pharmacies were without power and, even if they had a generator, computers were down making it impossible to track patient records and insurance information. Stocks of medication had been destroyed by floodwater and employees were dealing with their own losses and unable to work. The nearest operational pharmacy to our clinic was 20 blocks away and many of our patients were unable to make the trek. Dr. John arranged for non-medical volunteers to fill prescriptions at the pharmacy and deliver them to our waiting patients. It was creative problem solving at its best.
Unfortunately the pharmacy ran out of pre-filled insulin pens and could only provide vials of insulin to customers. I was happy to teach one of our visitors how to properly draw up and administer insulin with a syringe. We both laughed when the hardest part of the lesson was getting to an injection site. After peeling off five layers he said, “My winter clothes were destroyed in the flood. I’m wearing all of the clothes that I have.” Looking down at his sweatshirt he smiled and said, “Actually, I don’t even know whose shirt this is!”
Another favorite clinic moment was when a volunteer attempted to help a deaf man whom she could not understand. She was unsure of his needs and was hoping that someone could facilitate. I recalled learning the sign language alphabet in third grade (thank you Mrs. Racey at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Seattle, WA), had a deaf neighbor growing up and plenty of experience with medical charades so I gave it my best shot. I learned that he had no medical issues, had a place to sleep at night and was not interested in staying at a shelter. His apartment had been destroyed in the flood and he needed help renting a new one right away. The volunteer then escorted him to the appropriate organization desk for assistance. I was grateful in my ability to help the two of them communicate with one another.
Later in the day, a high-spirited 87 year old visitor climbed the two flights of stairs to the clinic requesting ibuprofen for her arthritis. Another senior visitor was undergoing a series of teeth extractions for the process of getting dentures and also requested ibuprofen. They both asked for only what they needed instead of taking everything they could get and it warmed my heart. I gave them both bottles of ibuprofen and wish I could have told them what a privilege it was to meet them.
We had a chiropractor and a dentist on-hand who were able to offer their services as well. The chiropractor treated anyone in need and offered volunteers complimentary alignments. The dentist brought with her dozens of homemade chocolate chip cookies and many non-medical friends who organized the medical supply donations.
Medical donations were essential in the clinic’s success and I am grateful for them. However, I was curious why there were no official personnel dispatched to diagnose patients and administer the supplies. By asking around, I learned that the major national disaster relief organizations were focusing on New Jersey. Because tourism is New Jersey’s second largest source of revenue, it is imperative to restore its beaches as quickly as possible. If the State of New Jersey goes bankrupt, there could be far-reaching effects on the country’s economic state which will affect all Americans.
Currently, there is no electricity for many residents of Rockaway and Dr. Meringolo warns that cold temperatures and mold will contribute to respiratory infections. Residents and volunteers will also require tetanus shots as demolition projects continue. The St. Francis community resource hub has moved to another location on the peninsula and the school is scheduled to be renovated. The urgent care clinic has closed but a NYC mobile van is parked outside for walk-ups. Fortunately, private practices and pharmacies are beginning to reopen and provide services.
I feel privileged to have been part of a hands-on, community effort to support fellow New Yorkers in their time of need. It was a privilege to offer my training and skill to the residents of Rockaway Beach in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The true spirit of nursing has been renewed within me and I look forward to sharing it with others.