(COLLEGE STATION) – Medical students at The Texas A&M University System Health Science Center College of Medicine had planned to spend the weekend of September 24 cramming for gross anatomy and basic block tests that had been scheduled for the following Monday. Mother Nature had other ideas, however, as Category Five Hurricane Rita bore down on the Texas and Louisiana coasts.
With visions of the recent devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, residents from Houston and Galveston scrambled to evacuate the region, bringing approximately 10,000 evacuees to the Bryan-College Station area. Many were seeking shelter from the storm, but there were also hundreds of sick and elderly people who had been evacuated from hospitals, clinics and nursing homes.
Hurricane Rita was looming on the horizon, and administrators at the A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine made plans to close the college that Friday, September 23. However, it quickly became apparent that there was a shortage in the local medical workforce available to serve in the evacuee shelters, and the medical students would be invaluable as volunteers. As a result, college leadership made the decision to cancel classes at noon on Thursday, providing an opportunity for students to attend orientation sessions and begin volunteering as soon as possible.
“I jumped at the chance to volunteer because I knew how desperately the help was needed,” first-year student Grace Brown said. “I wanted both to comfort and tend to the special needs patients and aid the volunteers who were already spread so thin. I’ve always valued opportunities to reach out to the distressed and the needy, but I feel an even stronger conviction now as a medical student to make myself available as a source of aid and as a leader whenever the need arises.”
Approximately 90 students volunteered over the weekend at shelters across the city, contributing more than 700 collective hours to the relief effort. They performed a wide array of tasks, ranging from changing diapers of nursing home patients and distributing medication to physically carrying evacuees and sitting with the dying. Many spoke of wanting to do more and being frustrated by their relatively limited medical skills as students, but that the experience made them even more driven to become the best doctors they can be.
“This was a wonderful volunteer experience that proved truly rewarding and it reaffirmed my commitment to become a doctor, second-year medical student Anastacio Saenz said. “It allowed me to put to use many of the skills that we have learned in class, including pertinent history-taking and effective communication with patients. It also gave me the opportunity to learn disaster relief first hand. The lessons I learned in that one night of volunteering far surpassed anything I could have gained from a book or a mock emergency situation.”
No one could have anticipated the impact that the students time spent with the evacuees would have on them not only as future physicians, but also as people. Their experiences allowed them not only to help those in need, but also provided an invaluable opportunity to receive hands-on training in a real-life disaster relief setting.
In addition to the work of the students, many faculty members volunteered as well, including physicians from the local Scott & White Clinic. Teams of faculty from the Central Texas Veterans Healthcare System hospital in Temple traveled to College Station to help with the physician shortage. The College of Medicine’s dean, Christopher C. Colenda, M.D., M.P.H., also spent countless hours in the shelters, organizing relief efforts and providing care for evacuees.
“I am extremely proud of our students and faculty for the work they did at the shelters during Hurricane Rita,” Dr. Colenda said. “This experience made a tremendous impact on the evacuees, brought great relief to the local medical workforce and served as a life-changing lesson we never could duplicate in the classroom. Our students” collective effort reflects the kind of selfless, talented physicians they are quickly becoming.”

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