Superstorm sends local medical pros on mission of mercy

It was Vicki Schiessl’s first deployment since the Army sent her to Germany in the 1970s.

The 55-year-old nurse from Stanwood packed her steel-toed boots and headed to the front.

This time, it was with the Washington-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team to tend to the wounds of superstorm Sandy. Schiessl, a Cascade Valley Hospital nurse, joined the Seattle-based rapid-response team four years ago and had trained for the day she would be activated.

When the alert came, her bags were ready: A hiking pack with personal items. A backpack with clothes, boots and mess kit. A fanny pack with gloves, stethoscope, trauma scissors and earplugs.

“We left on Halloween,” she said. She’d planned to go trick-or-treating with her two grandkids.

“Our mission was to decompress an ER department,” she said. “The ER was getting overrun with more than they could handle. We were sent to ease that burden.”

On the medical team with Schiessl were about 40 others, including three Snohomish County residents: Mike Waite, a Redmond Fire Department paramedic; and Snohomish County Fire District 1 firefighters Kurt Hilt, a paramedic, and EMT Mike Smith.

The storm had closed the New York airports, so the team flew into Philadelphia and drove to Long Island. It was about midnight when they arrived in Oceanside and set up a five-tent compound in the parking lot of South Nassau Communities Hospital.

“We started seeing patients at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Schiessl said.

After a few hours’ sleep on a cot in a tent with 25 others, it was time to start a 12-hour shift.

“It was like ‘game on’ after that,” she said. “All we did was work. We worked 12-hour shifts, then crawled into bed.”

That was the drill for 10 days straight. During that time, the team saw about 1,100 patients.

“Primarily what we saw were the walking wounded,” Schiessl said. “People you see in urgent care or emergency rooms, with lacerations, broken bones, burns. Folks who lost everything and needed refills on medications.”

The team treated utility workers and firefighters injured on the job, as well as the out-of-state insurance adjustor who stepped on piece of wood with a nail.

“All were eager to get back to work,” she said.

That same spirit prevailed in the staff working inside the hospital. About 120 were significantly affected by the hurricane, she said. “Yet they were taking care of people. That takes a lot of stamina to lose your home and power and come to work.”

If all that wasn’t bad enough, the nor’easter came through dropping wet heavy snow, which created more havoc and injuries.

Election Day was just another day of puncture wounds and tetanus shots. There was no TV blaring results. Occasionally, someone would ask, “Did you hear who is winning? Who’s our president now?”

The days were long, but the time went by fast.

The medical team returned to Washington on Nov. 11. That was a Sunday, and by early Wednesday morning Schiessl was back in gear at the Arlington hospital where she has worked for 21 years.

“She could have taken off longer,” Cascade Valley spokeswoman Catherine Russell said.

“It was time to get back,” Schiessl said. The first day she did her beat as an employee health nurse at the hospital. The next day, she worked 12 hours in the Cascade Valley ER.

Schiessl said she’ll never forget the misery she witnessed on Long Island in Sandy’s aftermath.

“The bewildered, hopeless, haunted looks on people’s faces,” she said.

“There was a man who came in with his son. I asked if he had power at home. He said, ‘I have no home.’”

The experience made her more grateful for her husband, Fred, her grandkids and even her chickens.

“I could get back to a nice warm bed and home and family,” she said. “These folks are still having a hard time. I don’t want them forgotten.”

Andrea Brown; 425-339-3443; abrown@heraldnet.com

Response team

The Washington-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team is a paid service that is part of the National Disaster Medical System. Teams provide rapid response to disaster sites to supplement local medical care. For information: www.wa1dmat.com.

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