Life Well Lived: Protect your health before the storm hits

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Dr. Vivek Sinha treats a patient while deployed to Florida's Panhandle in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael (Photo courtesy HHS)
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By Dr. Vivek Sinha

When Hurricane Michael slammed into Florida this past month, it affected hundreds of thousands of people. Power was lost, homes were destroyed, and, in many unfortunate cases, people were hurt and lives were lost. 

I recently returned from Florida where my Federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team
was deployed for 10 days. We were stationed at Fort Walton Beach in the Florida Panhandle, where we had the opportunity to care for people affected by
the storm.

Speaking from a medical point of view, while each storm is different, there are certain commonalities that occur each time. When a region’s healthcare infrastructure is damaged, certain medical situations and problems often present themselves to survivors. Knowing
what the common situations are after a major storm not only can help responders plan, but also help the people in the storm’s path.

Here are some firsthand accounts of lessons learned that can help us prepare for the next disaster.

Know who is most vulnerable — and plan accordingly

Of the 700 patients that our medical assistance team treated, almost half of them were people below the age of 10 or people above the age of 60. Our children and our seniors are often the ones most at risk when hospitals are shut down, mainly because
the immune system may not be fully developed yet in young children and may be
compromised in older individuals.

Minor illnesses have the potential to become serious and lead to secondary infections. Small cuts and scrapes can easily become infected and in an environment where it may be difficult to see your doctor, these infections can become life-threatening. If you have a loved one in either of these age groups, be extra cautious in preparing for a major storm.

Have a first aid kit with you at all times

Many of the people we treated had evacuated, but because hospitals were shut down, had been unable to find medical treatment in a timely fashion. Countless people suffered large infections on their legs, arms, and face. Many of these infections required debridement
and strong antibiotics. However most of these larger infections actually started with
smaller cuts and scrapes that became infected.

To prevent this from happening, having a small first aid kit with you at all times is invaluable. Adhesive bandages, Neosporin, Steri-strips, clean gauze and a source of clean water to irrigate wounds are some of the key components that are needed after a disaster. Keeping all wounds, no matter how small, clean and dry is the best step in preventing larger infections from forming.

One gentleman came in with a large gash on his leg that was several days old. He was able to prevent it from getting infected by using large Band-Aids and keeping it dry by wrapping the affected portion of his leg with plastic wrap that he changed twice a day. That simple act probably prevented him from being admitted to the hospital.

Know your medical conditions/medications

There are several medical conditions that can make someone susceptible to injury and illness post-disaster. Conditions like insulin-dependent diabetes, asthma, COPD and congestive heart failure have one critical fact in common—without the appropriate medication, these conditions can spiral out of control in days, if not hours. Pharmacies are often shut down and medications can become scarce. A large number of patients that we treated in Florida simply were there for medication refills. 

One way to account for this is to have an “extra” supply of your medication on hand at all times. Chronic medications are often filled by physicians in 30- or 90-day supplies but it is important to have at least a two-week supply of additional medications whenever you are traveling or the forecast is calling for a major storm. These requests should be made early to your doctor’s offices to allow for the prescriptions to be filled.

Respiratory conditions (like asthma and COPD) have the potential to flare up in the aftermath of a storm. Having your inhaler medications on hand may be the best thing you can do to decrease your chances of needing urgent medical attention.

Keep your vaccines up to date

The best treatment is prevention. Vaccines are one of the most important things that we can do right now to help us in the future. There were countless numbers of patients that presented to our medical facility with viral illnesses and influenza.

The stress that occurs after a storm can decrease a healthy person’s immune system and make them more susceptible to illnesses. While the flu shot may not prevent someone from catching the flu, it does decrease the likelihood that you will suffer the life-threatening complications of the flu.

Every single patient that we saw was asked about their tetanus shot status and if they had not received one in the past five years, they were offered one. Simple cuts and scrapes have the potential to carry in toxins that can cause serious conditions, like tetanus.
Stacking the deck in your favor by keeping your vaccines up to date is one of the most important steps that people can take now.

These are just a few simple examples of how we can keep ourselves and our family safe during a disaster. The purpose of these examples is to keep us aware and knowledgeable during times of crisis. Knowledge is power and enabling ourselves by staying knowledgeable and informed is the best preparation we can make. Stay safe.

Dr. Vivek Sinha is the chief medical officer of Belleview Medical Partners, an office and house call practice based in Old Town.

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