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Former Congressman Dr. Phil Gingrey provides public policy and government relations counsel to clients on a variety of issues. Here at Phil on the Hill, Phil draws upon his long career in public service to provide perspective and context on policy topics such as health care, the federal budget, annual appropriations, regulatory reform, and life sciences.

The Hospital as Hero

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Funding for hurricane preparedness is back on the table in Congress. As my former colleagues debate this provision, they should keep in mind the heroic role hospitals have played from Houston to Florida to Puerto Rico.

The spate of natural disasters that struck this country recently showcases the ability and willingness of hospitals to meet any challenge head on. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, doctors and nurses in San Juan worked 30-hour shifts with limited power and no air conditioning. Hospitals are often the best planners for maintaining critical services during disasters. Careful planning allowed Houston hospitals to remain open, while constantly admitting a flow of new patients coming in by helicopter.

As hospitals plan for acts of nature, they also prepare for acts of man. No doctor or nurse goes into medicine to respond to mass casualty events, but all of these dedicated health professionals recognize the necessity of preparing for them. As we saw in Las Vegas, once doctors and nurses are challenged by unthinkable crimes, instinct and training kick in.

While it is easy to be overwhelmed by such stories, inspiration is to be found in the tireless and heroic efforts of the doctors and nurses of Las Vegas hospitals who handled hundreds of casualties. Time and again, whenever there is a large tragedy, the American hospital is our center of refuge and life-saving responses.

My first experience as a physician with large-scale disaster was the crash landing of Southern Airways Flight 242 on April 4, 1977. After sustaining hail damage during an unexpected thunderstorm, this DC-9 was forced to attempt an unpowered landing on a highway in Paulding County, Georgia. 

I was just starting my medical career at Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, 35 miles from the crash site. I witnessed firsthand not only the terrible human toll of that crash, but also the heroic responses from hospitals and healers from across the Atlanta area.

The crash ultimately killed 63 on board the plane, as well as 9 people on the ground. Timely intervention from the hospital staff ensured that there were 23 survivors. The willingness of the staff to drop everything and rush to aid the victims made a deep impression on me.

I’m an OB/GYN, so trauma is not my specialty. I dressed wounds and comforted the injured while watching neurosurgeons and nurse practitioners rush into the battle to save lives and quell the pain of the mortally injured.

It is not unheard of for doctors and other professionals to arrive at the scene of a disaster before other more traditional first responders like ambulance, police and firefighters. Many with experience in the medical community take their response and ceaseless work for granted, but the public cannot afford to do so. 

We must admire and honor these professionals for their dedication. We must also work with them to make sure they have the resources they need to support their recovery efforts. And when it comes to the culture of preparedness, responsibility and the willingness to roll up their sleeves and get the job done, we can all learn a lesson from hospital heroes.