The call for volunteers went out at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday. Within 45 minutes, 26 members of the Flowers Hospital nursing staff had signed up to assist one of three fellow Community Health System’s hospitals in south Florida.
The first wave of nurses left Dothan, bound for Port Charlotte, Wednesday afternoon. Six nurses will be flown to Fort Myers via a Cessna Citation plane provided by Power South Electric Cooperative of Andalusia. The other two CHS facilities are in Punta Gorda and Collier. The volunteers will be based in Punta Gorda.
“We have a total of 26 nurses going down there,” said Dan Cumbie, chief nursing officer. “Today, we’re sending six. We’re limited with the flights and transportation. It’s absolutely incredible the way our staff volunteered.”
The volunteers are sure to be a welcome sight for the beleaguered staff in Port Charlotte.
“Our people will provide relief for their staff,” Cumbie said. “Their people have been there (in the hospital) for many long hours. Our role is to help relieve some of them. We have a lot of emergency room volunteers going. In this first group, all six are ER nurses.”
Cumbie noted the destruction south Florida faced has created logistical issues for the Port Charlotte staff.
“Power and gas have been issues there,” Cumbie said. “Slowly, some services are returning. But we know they have some structural and drainage issues. They have done the job of keeping everything running.”
David Mitchell, of Power South, will fly the six volunteers to south Florida.
“We’re certainly appreciative of Power South volunteering to transport our folks down there,” Cumbie added. “One of our nurses has connections to the company. When contacted, they said they could fly six of our nurses to south Florida.”
Cumbie says the local hospital will miss the staff members, but the facility will manage.
“Our staff here has been doubling up on shifts to make sure things are covered here,” he said.
For Nikki Langford, the decision to help was an easy one, and one she made quickly.
“I volunteered immediately as (Hurricane) Harvey was coming through,” she said. “I’m from Houston. I was ready to go to Houston to help.”
A call for volunteer nurses didn’t come from east Texas, but it wouldn’t be long before a call for help came - thanks to Hurricane Irma. She believes the trip to south Florida will be a humbling one.
“I’ve been around hurricanes growing up in Texas and here,” Langford said. “I’ve seen the damage after the fact. However, this time I will see it so soon after the hurricane. We will see how blessed we are having (CHS) sister hospitals available to help them.”
“The trip will be stressful, but humbling,” added Jill Carter, a 20-year veteran of nursing (spending the last seven in the ER). “I made the decision to volunteer immediately. I called my husband to make sure it would be okay with him. That area was hit hard. That’s what we’ve heard. I’m assuming we’ll help run the ER. Some of their staff can’t make it to work (because of the amount of damage in the area). The volume of work there has been overwhelming for them.”
This trip will include veterans and at least one newcomer to the nursing profession. Logan Gaster has been a nurse for four months. The decision to volunteer came quickly for him.
“It took about 20 minutes to make the decision to put my name on the list,” he said. “Hopefully, I will be able to be a lot of help in this situation. It’s been stressful on the people there. We will give maximum effort and be a huge relief for them.”
Anne Carmichael, a 12-year nursing veteran, didn’t wait for the call for volunteers to come.
“I requested, if we sent a team, that I would go,” she said. “We will do whatever they need us to do. We’re going there to provide support and help.”
Debbie Newman, RN, has spent 27 years in the nursing profession. The last seven have been in the ER.
“I volunteered (to provide assistance) before Harvey hit Houston,” Newman said. “Doing something like this has always been on my heart. I worked in Enterprise after the tornado and in Geneva after the flooding. But, for something like this, I could never go. I had kids and couldn’t go. They’re grown now. This gives me the opportunity to use my skills (on a disaster relief trip).”
Nathan Chase will bring a unique perspective to this trip. He became a licensed EMT in 1991 before considering nursing as a profession.
“It’s been in my blood,” he said. “It’s what I know. I volunteered, when the hurricane came through (south Florida).”
He expects the experience to be hectic.
“We will do typical ER nurse responsibilities,” Chase said. “I don’t think many doctors’ offices or clinics are open right now. The ER will take care of the medical needs.”
The flow of nurses from Flowers Hospital will continue until all 26 have been sent in to relieve the Port Charlotte staff.
“The people there are tired,” said Heath Phillips, CEO of Flowers Hospital, as he spoke to the volunteers. “It will be an emotional experience for you. But it’s also a testament to our ER. You will have people here picking up the slack. Y’all embody what we are as a community and as a hospital.”
The Flowers Hospital staff members will spend a week assisting in Port Charlotte. They will return home next Tuesday.