'I don’t think I’ve ever been tested more as a nurse'
Cook Children's employee helps those in need during Hurricane Harvey
Candace Wilson saw plenty of tough situations as a nurse in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Cook Children’s, but nothing compared to the havoc she witnessed while trying to evacuate a nursing home from the rising flood waters of Hurricane Harvey.
Wilson, who’s now a Cook Children’s database coordinator working from Nederland, Texas, luckily had her home spared in the storm that left more than 60 people dead and 70 billion dollars’ worth of damage. So when she saw a post on Facebook asking for nurses to help rescue people from a nearby nursing home in Port Arthur, Texas, she knew she needed to go.
“When I first arrived, I was truly walking into the unknown. Men were bringing patients out of the building and loading them onto boats,” said Wilson.
She quickly found her place at the Port Arthur Little Theater, just down the street from the nursing home which was inaccessible without a boat. The theater parking lot was covered with tents, providing a much needed shelter and place for the evacuees to escape the 18 inches of water they’d been trapped in. Once on the ground, Wilson started doing what she always does – helping people in need.
“I was checking blood sugar and blood pressure. It was pretty scary for a number of these patients because half were diabetic and no one had eaten in over 12 hours,” she said. “The Army was flying in helicopters and planes to transport the most critical people out of the area. My role was triaging patients and figuring out who needed to go first.”
It wasn’t always easy to determine just who that was. Wilson says the patients, many of whom had dementia or Alzheimer’s, left the nursing home with just a sticky note with their name on it. Most didn’t have family members with them, and knowing their medical history was all but impossible.
“You’re putting them on an airplane and some only had a sticky note with their name on it. Most didn’t have their medications with them, no one had had their medications at all that day,” said Wilson.
At one point, the PICU nurse accustomed to treating pediatric patients in a controlled environment found herself with an evacuee who was having trouble breathing. She started digging through equipment coming out of the nursing home and found a nebulizer. The only problem was, she didn’t have power to make it work. Instead of giving up, Wilson found a news crew van and began beating on the door. They were able to provide her an extension cord and she set up the machine right there on the hood of the vehicle.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been tested more as a nurse. There wasn’t a doctor there telling you what to do. There were more than 100 patients there and it was all hands on deck.”
Wilson says emotionally, it was one of the hardest days she’s had on the job.
“It was terrible, heartbreaking. I remember trying to get one lady out and she just kept telling me not to leave her,” she said with a shaky voice. “They were cold and wet. Many didn’t even know if they’d make it out of the nursing home. I just knew the whole time, this is someone’s family member.”
Wilson worked into the night, only leaving once she knew her help was no longer needed. The military had heavily deployed to the scene and had the situation under control.
But, of course, her helping spirit couldn’t take a break for long. The next day she made her way to the airport where evacuees were being put on planes and sent to shelters across the state. She joined a group of volunteers sorting donations. That’s where a young mother approached her with a donation that pulled at Wilson’s heart.
“She handed me bedding she had saved off of her child’s bed and said ‘I guess I have to donate this.’ That was particularly hard because the evacuees could only take a 50 pound bag with them. Everything that family had left was in that bag, but there wasn’t room for the child’s bedding.”
Later that day, she returned with food for the first responders. Then, she volunteered her time at the Methodist church.
When asked why she did all that she did, Wilson said she just needed to.
“My house didn’t flood. I was lucky. So when I saw all of those who weren’t as lucky, I felt like I needed to go and do something.”