In Houston Devastation is Human as Well as Material
HOPE team plays vital role to restore overburdened health infrastructure
Vanessa Santiago knows what it’s like to be a part of a disaster response team. In 2016, she deployed with Project HOPE to Haiti to assist in rebuilding after Hurricane Matthew. However, even with that experience in hand, she was nervous at first about responding to Hurricane Harvey in Texas.
“Going in, I was really terrified because all you know is what you see in the news,” she said.
Anyone who saw coverage of Hurricane Harvey can certainly understand why. The unprecedented flooding from Harvey took its toll on the Houston area. Dozens of people lost their lives, and many thousands more had homes severely damaged in the storm.
Vanessa was part of HOPE’s emergency response team which worked to address health challenges created by the flooding. She helped with many of the logistical aspects of the response, including where to deploy medical volunteers to have the most positive impact, developing partnerships with local health providers and coordinating interpreters to assist patients who spoke a foreign language. When it came to those patients, she explained, “If you don’t have an interpreter, you might as well not even have a doctor.”
Vanessa is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, so when she had a spare moment, she also assisted with interpretation efforts. During one of her interpretation sessions, she was especially moved by one of the patients she met.
“I was interpreting for one man who was having shoulder pain. He works in construction and he couldn’t lift his arm above his head. The nurse practitioner said he couldn’t wait any longer, that he needed to go to San Jose Clinic and see a doctor. She told him ‘If physical therapy doesn’t work, you might have to have surgery.’
His eyes opened up wide, because of course to him that means a lot of money. And I just started crying, it just seemed so unfair that he might have to go through surgery or physical therapy, where he’s not making a lot of money and he has this pain.”
The patient’s story was not uncommon. Houston settles more refugees than any other city in the United States, including many from Venezuela who were affected by the flooding from Harvey. “Some of their stories were just absolutely devastating,” she said. “They had houses, and cars, and businesses that they started up from the ground, and they were wealthy in their country, but they had to leave. One woman told me ‘I came here with $300 in my pocket’ because of the restrictions of the government there.”
Vanessa believes that Project HOPE has been able to make a long-term impact on the community. Not only was the HOPE team able to provide vulnerable populations with emergency care, but they were able to refer those in need to providers like San Jose Clinic where they can get ongoing care for health needs.
HOPE also worked to address the serious strain the storm put on the local health professionals, who were dealing with the aftereffects of flooding just like the patients they were treating. “There was a lot of stress where it was just one thing after another,” she said. “Some of them also had family members in Florida that they were worrying about with Hurricane Irma.”
As part of the effort to help overburdened doctors and nurses, Vanessa detailed how the team was able to do “something beautiful” for local health staff. Dr. Nancy Miller, a mental health therapist who was part of HOPE’s relief team, held a “Lunch and Learn” session with local staff on how to alleviate stress from the impact of the storm.
As Vanessa reflected on her time in Texas, she was struck by how different things were from what she had initially expected. “Everybody in Houston was so generous, with open arms,” she said. “There was never a shortage of churches that wanted to welcome us in. We would just be eating outside and people would pick up our tabs, or give us discounts on rental cars, because people were just so grateful.”