Paramedics and Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) from West End Fire Company in Phoenixville, Uwchlan Ambulance Corp., Bucks County Rescue Squad in Bristol, Trappe Fire Company and Malvern Fire Company are among the departments that make up the Pennsylvania Emergency Medical Task Force, which was sent to Louisiana to provide disaster medical assistance to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Tom Lawrence is the team leader for the Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) from Rhode Island. DMAT is part of a national disaster medical system within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and is comprised of teams all over the country. Pennsylvania has two federal teams, one in Pittsburgh, and one in Erie.
Lawrence's Rhode Island team had been working with the Chester and Bucks County team in Lafayette. He praised their work in the field hospital, and requested the team remain in Lafayette with him and his crew while they were there.
"I know how important it is to have a team with some cohesiveness," said Lawrence. "At one point, there was a request made by us to have them stay here, because we've found the ability to work with them."
Before Katrina made landfall, Lawrence's Rhode Island team prepared for the worst. They deployed to Alabama to wait out the storm, then, as it passed, they moved into Mississippi. After the worst of Katrina had passed, the team moved into Baton Rouge, then went on to the Superdome, where they provided care to patients until they were evacuated.
Lawrence said the situation inside was "like nothing you've probably ever seen."
"There were thousands of people without food or water, people who were left out on their own," he said.
The medical providers of DMAT treated everything from the usual coughs and colds to gunshot wounds inflicted during violent episodes. Lawrence did say that the violence was nowhere near as widespread as it was portrayed by the media.
"There was violence, but overall, I would not be able to characterize it as it's been characterized by the media," he said. "What we saw on television was sensationalized. I don't doubt it was an unpleasant place to be, but the rampant violence was not evident to me."
From the Superdome, the team moved to Metarie, then to Lafayette, where they met the Task Force and set up a field hospital inside the Heymann Performing Arts Center.
"This is kind of an unusual situation," said Lawrence. "Lafayette is a city in the middle of two disasters, between Lake Charles and Cameron. In Cameron, there's almost nothing left, so we're seeing victims of both hurricanes (Katrina and Rita) who are seeking shelter."
The number of patients being treated at the field hospital dropped nearly 70 percent within a week, from 135 patients per day to less than 50.
While in Lafayette, the team slept in ambulances and tents, and set up sleeping quarters inside the Center. They used portable showers and restrooms; they made friends and had experiences they won't soon forget.
Lawrence said he wanted to remind family members of those involved in the relief efforts to support those who have stepped up to the plate to render care to those who needed it.
"There are people down here who didn't have much to start with," he said. "Think about these folks down here and what you would do if your house flooded, then appreciate the efforts of those who have helped these people."