Pa. EMS teams provide disaster relief to hurricane-stricken areas

The team set up two custom tents for treatment rooms and a pharmacy, as well as living quarters


By Chuck Biedka
The Valley News-Dispatch

LOWER BURRELL, Pa. — Medical personnel from Lower Burrell, Cheswick and Washington Township were among those who went to Florida early this month to help out in the days after Hurricane Matthew.

Nurse Kevin Neely was amazed with the reaction of people in Melbourne.

“They were a lot more positive than I thought they would be,” the Washington Township resident said. “They had some health issues, but they knew they made it past a big storm.”

Neely and his colleagues were sent to help treat certain hurricane injures in order to lessen pressure on emergency room staff.

Neely, along with nurse Bruce Siorkowski of Lower Burrell and UPMC McKeesport paramedic manager Tom Duryea, of Cheswick, are part of a 46-member federal disaster medical assistant team and are part-time employees of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

“We see people at the worst time of their lives and use our talents,” said team commander, Knox Walk, a McKeesport area resident and UPMC McKeesport manager.

The team, which also includes doctors and pharmacists, set up two custom tents for treatment rooms and a pharmacy, as well as living quarters.

Walk said they handled less serious cases at Health First's Holmes Regional Medical Center in Melbourne for about four days.

USA Today reported that insured property losses for both residential and commercial properties from Hurricane Matthew were estimated to be between $4 billion and $6 billion.

At least 43 people died in the United States and more than 500 in Haiti.

The crew from Western Pennsylvania was kept busy.

Siorkowski and Neely helped patients. Duryea's job was primarily handling logistics for the team.

Everyone helped to erect the tents and organize supplies.

“We gave the ER staff a break from the non-urgent cases,” Siorkowski said. “They came out of the hospital for a break and were a little apprehensive at first because we're not well-known.

“But then they found out and they started to smile,” said Siorkowski, who works at a MedExpress in Allison Park and previously was a staff nurse at UPMC St. Margaret hospital near Aspinwall.

It was tough on the Melbourne medical staff. Some of them were dealing with damage or loss of their own homes and schools for their children.

The team gave them a valuable commodity: time, and reduced the overall emergency room patient volume by 50 to 60 a day.

“We mostly handled cuts and burns and respiratory problems,” Siokowski said. “After a hurricane, there can be a lot of mold and mildew.”

Neely is an intensive care nurse at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. He joined the team just after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“My job was to meet people and ‘sort' them. I decided who would go into the tent or those who would go into the hospital for an X-ray, for example,” he said.

He saw some of the damage and met appreciative nurses and patients.

Ed Roberts, the ER manager of Holmes Regional Medical Center, said the medical assistance team's presence “allowed us to continue to provide high quality health care to our patients.”

The Pittsburgh-area team “conducted themselves with the utmost professionalism and should be commended for the silent service they train and prepare for whenever our country may need it the most.”

The team has been at dozens of deployments, including Haiti. Neely met even more appreciative patients there just after a major earthquake in 2010.

“I had a wonderful experience,” Neely said. “They were wonderful people; I would go back to help them anytime.”

Last August, the team was in Baton Rouge following flooding.

“I saw water halfway up on houses and people putting all of their furniture on the curb to throw away,” Neely said. “Very sad.”

The team had a fully stocked pharmacy and were able to give people up to a week of their daily medicine.

“Imagine you couldn't get your medicine at home or you can't get to your pharmacy,” Siorkowski said.

Normally, Duryea teaches medics advanced cardiac and pediatric life support and general life support at UPMC McKeesport.

In Florida, he was in charge of stocking the HHS medical cache. He and others also erected the special tents, adding lighting, air conditioning, showers and sleeping quarters.

The team included guards, who under normal circumstances were Western Pennsylvania police officers.

“After 9/11, I felt the need to do something,” Duryea said.

Copyright 2016 The Valley News-Dispatch

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