An 'Army Of People' Helps Houston Cancer Patients Get Treatment

Aug 31, 2017
Originally published on September 1, 2017 7:27 am

As rains pounded Houston on Sunday, Dr. Karen Lu took to Twitter and conveyed both alarm and reassurance: "Roads around @MDAndersonNews impassable. Our on-site ride out team is caring for patients and we are all safe."

Lu is a professor of gynecologic oncology and interim chief medical officer at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, a top cancer hospital and research center. Earlier that morning, the hospital had sent a high-water vehicle — a box truck — to Lu's neighborhood, and she walked eight blocks through flooded streets to meet it.

The storm forced the hospital to close to outpatients. Surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatment and other appointments were put on hold for the 13,000 people MD Anderson sees each week.

Inside the hospital, doctors, nurses, technicians and facilities and food service staff were keeping things running for more than 500 inpatients and their families.

Lu spoke to Morning Edition host Mary Louise Kelly as the hospital was shifting into recovery mode Thursday.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When the water was highest, what did that look like?

The main road that leads to the hospital was a river of about 4 feet of water.

Amazingly, our buildings withstood the storm. Over the last decade, the Texas Medical Center has re-engineered the area so that there are floodgates that go up, and that really protected the buildings. There were no patient care areas that were impacted by the storm.

You have a ride-out team, which refers to staff who have agreed to stay put and ride out the storm. How did that work?

We had about a thousand staff here. The unsung heroes in this disaster are our nurses, our lab techs, our pharmacy techs, our food services, our security who kept [everyone] safe.

We had 528 patients who were in the hospital on Sunday morning and probably another couple hundred family members. We were really able to care for these very sick individuals. There was no compromise in our ability to care for them.

What about those outpatients whose appointments were canceled?

[Thursday] morning, we moved to limited outpatient services.

We've had our teams, even while they have been at home, going through and looking at who urgently needs treatment. So already yesterday, we were able to address these urgent needs — in surgery, for chemotherapy as well as radiation therapy.

When you talk about surgery, it's not just the surgeon. It's the [operating room] nurse. It's the surgical tech. It's the individuals who sterilize our instruments. So, while you can have a surgeon on site, it's all those other team members that it really takes.

So yesterday, we tested to be able to see that we could safely provide care, and we were able to do two OR cases, we were able to treat over 50 individuals for radiation, and we were able to treat about 35 very sick [leukemia patients] who needed blood products.

And today, we're ramping up and doing more. And there's an army of people trying to reach out to patients to get them rescheduled.

Your staff at the hospital is obviously just as affected as everyone else.

Absolutely. Prior hurricanes have impacted our buildings. Other hurricanes have impacted our research enterprise, our laboratory animals. I have to say what Harvey's impacted is our staff. And that's what's so heartbreaking. We believe that somewhere between 30 [and] 60 percent of our workforce has been impacted by Harvey — people whose homes have been flooded and who have been asked to evacuate.

Have you made it home since Sunday?

I have. And I'm glad, because I really need a clear head to lead our team to recovery. We're energized here at MD Anderson. Our patients are our focus, and we know that they need us.

Morning Edition editor Gail Austin and producers Maria Paz Gutierrez and David Fuchs contributed to this story.

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Let's hear now how one hospital in Houston is coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey - and not just any hospital, Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center. It's one of the world's foremost oncology facilities. Dr. Karen Lu is senior vice president and chief medical officer there. I spoke with her by Skype.

I am looking at pictures of your hallways flooded with water, pictures of the roads leading up to the hospital flooded. Can you describe for us what it is like there?

KAREN LU: Sure. I've been here for 18 years and been through several hurricanes. But our main road was literally a river of about 4 feet of water.

KELLY: This is the road that, say, an ambulance would be coming up?

LU: That's right. Over the last decade, the Texas Medical Center has re-engineered the area so that there are floodgates that go up, and that really protected the buildings.

KELLY: Did you have internal flooding inside the facility?

LU: We had very minimal damage. There were no patient care areas that were impacted by the storm.

KELLY: You all have what you call a ride-out team, which refers to staff who've agreed to stay put and just ride out the storm and take care of the patients who are there. Tell me how that's worked. How has it gone caring for the hundreds of people who you have on-site at MD Anderson?

LU: So we had 528 patients who were in the hospital on Sunday morning, as well as probably another couple hundred of family members. And the amazing part is that they were all safe and well cared for on a skeleton crew of individuals who are part of our ride-out team.

KELLY: Now, what about - we mentioned there are thousands of patients who live elsewhere, were not at the hospital when Harvey hit with great force - how has that worked out with patients? You mentioned the road has been totally flooded. Have people been able to get to you for their treatments?

LU: So we moved to a limited outpatient services, so our status has changed from being closed. And what that means is that we have really rallied our staff to come in today and to be able to contact these patients and reassure them and reschedule their appointments.

KELLY: You're, of course, dealing with patients who are already - if they're coming to you for cancer treatment - grappling with a terrifying health issue. And now they're having to deal with it in the middle of a huge citywide - regional disaster as well. What are you actually hearing from patients?

LU: So the amazing thing is that what I'm hearing from them are messages of - are you safe? It's amazing.

KELLY: They're asking you that? Wow.

LU: They're asking us how we're doing. So you know, it's such a partnership between patients and clinicians.

KELLY: That's Dr. Karen Lu, senior vice president and chief medical officer at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Dr. Lu, best of luck in the days to come.

LU: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.