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Home Health Care Heroes Weather Hurricane Harvey

Home Health Care Heroes Weather Hurricane Harvey

Mark Iacampo


Hurricane Harvey highlighted the courage and fortitude of the residents of South East Texas. All along the Gulf Coast, neighbors pulled together, helping each other in an unprecedented show of unity. Hometown heroes risked their own safety to come to the aid of strangers in need. Armies of volunteers rushed to the stricken areas to offer care and comfort to the victims of the storm.

At Reach Health Care Services (Reach), care and comfort are their business, offering complex medical care from certified professionals to patients in their own home. As Hurricane Harvey thundered toward Texas, the Reach staff went into action, executing their emergency preparedness plans. However, no one anticipated Harvey’s full rage, and the devastating effect of a year’s worth of rain within five days.

Terri Bohannon-Gerke, Reach’s CEO, was scheduled to return from out of town on the day after Harvey struck, and found herself stranded and unable to return as thousands of flights into Houston were cancelled. Although she stayed in close contact through phone calls and emails, for all intents and purposes, the Reach staff was on their own.

“I had complete confidence in our team,” Bohannon-Gerke said. “But they exceeded my every expectation. I could not be more proud.”

With many of Reach’s patients requiring 24 hour care, the staff headed to their shifts during the storm and knew that they might not be relieved for an extended period of time. Each staff member expressed their willingness to put their patients’ needs above their own.

Alma Richards remained with Cynthia H.  for six days, and said her biggest challenge was concern for her own husband and children’s safety during the storm.

“But I had faith everything would be okay,” Richards said. “Ms. Cynthia and I prayed together every day.”

Richards’s faith and dedication were rewarded through the gratitude of her patient and the bond that had been forged through shared hardship.

“After all that time together, she was really sad to see me go,” Richards said.

Winnie Hedge also spent days with her patient, Walter D. Though she initially left when her shift ended, rising waters forced her back. Realizing no one else would be able to get through to Walter, Hedge stayed on duty for four days.

“I felt well taken care of despite the storm,” Mr. D said. “Winnie took care of me. She’s great. All of them (Reach caregivers) are great.”

Sandra James cared for Mario R. for seven days straight, the flood waters cutting off all access to the patient’s home.

“Their street was a lake,” James said. “I knew the other assistants would not be able to reach us.”

Despite personal worries about her own home and mother, who was scheduled to be released from the hospital, James’s main concern remained making sure Mario was comfortable and well-cared –for. When she ran out of the food she had brought for herself, Mario’s family stepped in.

“We (the family and I) got through it together,” she said. “We kept each other calm and upbeat. I know they depend on me, but I had to depend on them, too, this time. They made me as comfortable as possible. We got each other through it.”

Joycelyn Turner and Funke Hawthorne teamed up to ensure Donald H. had continuous care, with each caregiver wading home after their shift through thigh-high water. Despite the difficulties, both Turner and Hawthorne expressed joy at knowing they provided for their patient when it was most needed. But they didn’t do it alone.

“It was challenging, but it was all about teamwork,” Turner said. “We were ready to do anything to make sure our patient was safe, but I knew we had to do it together.”

“Mrs. H.  was a Wonder Woman in her family,” Hawthorne added. “She went beyond everyone’s expectations.”

Mrs. H was equally impressed with the Reach caregivers, stating, “Funke was here as the waters began to rise, and she called Joyce and advised her to come to us NOW as we would not be accessible by auto in the morning. (Turner) arrived in the middle of the night, and managed a few hours of sleep before her shift began. Both women made their way on foot, leaving their cars marooned in our driveway for days. Each arrived on time, making their way with ingenuity and great difficulty each day.”

Lagena Cooper was with her ventilator dependent, quadriplegic patient, Arthur H. when the flood waters began to rise. As water forced its way into the house, Cooper knew they needed to evacuate. A loss of power, a failed generator, and her patient might die. As the water inched higher, Cooper and Mr. H evacuated to Houston Methodist St. Catherine Hospital in Katy.

When Cooper had set out for work the previous morning, she had dropped her 11-year-old daughter, McKenzie, at the sitter’s house. Worried, Cooper called and had her worst fears confirmed. The sitter’s house was flooding, and Cooper’s daughter was now in need of rescue.

“You have to stay calm, keep the patient calm, and just go through your normal procedures,” Cooper said. “Then I’d walk out into the hall and just melt into the floor, panicking about my daughter.”

The bond between Cooper and the Mr. H’s Family transcended mere caregiver and patient. Son-in-law, Matt, ventured out into the storm in an attempt to reach McKenzie, but raging waters drove him back.

“I’m sorry,” he told Cooper. “Here you are taking care of our family, and we can’t help yours.”

Cooper disagreed. “My patients are like family to me,” she said. “And I’m theirs, too.”

 “Typically, Mr. H. is staffed with seven caregivers for 24 hour care,” said Lily Esparza, Reach Director of Clinical Services. “They managed it with only two.”

The second member of the team was Patrick Onyenike, who assisted with sporadic 8 or 12 hour shifts for a six day period to offer Lagena an opportunity to rest after her alternating 24 hour and 40 hour shifts. But to Cooper, it was worth it.

 “I love taking care of my patients, and making a difference in their lives,” she said. “That’s why I do this job.”

Cooper persisted in calling for aid. The Cajun Navy, a group of Louisiana volunteers who banded together after Hurricane Katrina, rescued McKenzie and her sitter, finally reuniting mother and daughter.

“This was an experience I’ll never forget,” Cooper declared. “But we all banded together and we rode that hurricane out.”

In a massive operation dealing with over 130 patients, administrative duties are every bit as important as caregivers in the field. Director of Clinical Services, Lily Esparza, served on call for 13 days straight, triaging patients and instructing clinical staff on emergency preparations.

One of her most challenging moments of the storm arose when a hemophilia patent needed a factor infusion. Although the patient had been provided enough medicine to last through the storm, he still needed a professional to administer the dose.

“He was my patient,” Esparza said. “But I couldn’t get to him.”

Esparza began reaching out to local emergency rooms, pharmacies and other home health care agencies to find someone who might be able to access the patient. In the end, it was Reach’s Director of Nursing, Tameria Kelly-Pena who braved the flooded streets, finding a route through backroads and half-flooded neighborhoods to deliver the life-saving infusion. But Kelly-Pena claims she’s no hero.

“It’s all in a day’s work,” she said. “It’s why I do what I do.”

Christy Dobson, a 20-year veteran with Reach, remained on call from Aug. 25 to Sept. 5, fielding hundreds of calls and scheduling roughly 1400 hours of care for 33 patients and 100 Skilled Nursing patients.

“There were calls from employees unable to get to their shifts, from patients who had to evacuate and wanted us to know where they were,” she said. “Basically my phone never stopped ringing.”

At one point, having seen the devastation in Dickinson on Facebook, Dobson called Nicole Hernandez who was caring for Kenny N., a paraplegic from Galveston. Earlier during the storm, Hernandez and Kenny had made the decision to move inland to his brother’s home in Dickinson.

Hernandez confirmed Dobson’s fears. The house was flooding and they needed evacuation. A boat had already come by, but didn’t have enough room for the entire household. Dobson instructed Hernandez to contact the Sheriff’s department and indicate that they had a paraplegic patient in need. The Sherriff’s department responded and evacuated Hernandez, Kenny, his two family members and three dogs to the bridge at Interstate Highway 45 and Farm to Market Road 517.

Meanwhile, Dobson contacted her friend, Josh Martin who had been using his 18-wheeler as a rescue vehicle until police shut him down. She requested Martin pick up the stranded group. Though willing, Martin feared the police would not let him through. Dobson begged him to try.

As Martin neared the extraction point, his concerns were confirmed as police refused to let him pass. Dobson called the authorities to explain the situation and was informed the road was closed due to a Life Flight emergency rescue and would reopen soon. Dobson instructed Martin to wait, and within 15 minutes he had rendezvoused with the huddled refugees. From there, he transported them to Dobson’s own home.

“Besides Nicole, I’d never met any of them before, though I’d spoken with Kenny N. on the phone,” Dobson said. “But there was never any hesitation. I only did what I hope someone would do for me in the same situation.”

Hernandez, Kenny, his two relatives, and their three dogs stayed with Dobson a total of four days, but rather than a hardship, Dobson found the experience rewarding.

“They were so genuine and sweet,” said Dobson. “I opened my home to strangers and gained some really good friends.”

No matter the challenge, big or small, Reach professionals unhesitatingly gave their all to ensure the welfare of their patients.

“When push came to shove, everyone just lost sight of themselves and it became ‘what can I do for my patient,’” said Esparza. “With virtually no complaining, despite the stress of the situation, everyone just came together to do what needed to be done.”