Kayla Lash, M.D.,’15
When hurricane rains flooded Houston and wildfires devastated parts of California, School of Medicine alumni including Kayla Lash, M.D. ’15, stepped up
Training physicians to treat any patient under any circumstance is one goal of the UMKC School of Medicine. Developing caring, collaborative health professionals is another. Last year, several alumni showed those capabilities and qualities in the face of massive flooding in Houston and deadly wildfires in California.
For one physician, that meant working at her hospital for five days straight; for another, coping with a crushing patient load when she could finally get back to work. Still others dealt with the personal and professional aftermath of the floods and fires for weeks as it rippled through their practices. For most, it meant gratitude for not losing their own homes and extra compassion for patients and colleagues more directly affected.
Riding out Hurricane Harvey
As an obstetrics and gynecology resident, Kayla Lash, M.D. ’15, is used to working long hours. But when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston last Aug. 25, Lash really was put to the test.
“I went to work on a Friday night at Memorial Hermann Hospital in the Texas Medical Center, for a shift until 8 a.m. Saturday,” she said. “I left around 10 a.m. Tuesday.”
During that time, Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane, brought 130-mph winds and a year’s worth of rain — 30 to 60 inches — to various parts of Houston.
“The hospital was essentially on lockdown with our teams working, sleeping and living at the hospital and trading off shifts,” Lash said. “The roads leading to and surrounding the hospital were flooded most of that time. We were stranded but also couldn’t leave until our relief teams were able to get in.”
The number of new patients coming in wasn’t large, but the staff was plenty busy tending to the mothers and infants stranded there with them.
“Many of these patients didn’t have a safe way to leave, and many had suffered flood damage to their homes, making it unsafe to take a brand new baby home,” Lash said. “So we had an overflowing floor full of moms with newborns and nowhere to go who stayed a few extra days until they could get out safely to family or friends.”
More patients did make it in, including one who named her baby Harvey.
“One patient’s water broke at home, and she drove halfway to the hospital but couldn’t make it the rest of the way by car,” Lash said. “She walked through knee-deep floodwater and was in active labor when she got to labor and delivery. She delivered a beautiful baby girl within 20 minutes of her arrival.”
Another patient was stranded in an apartment complex where a general surgery resident and an internal medicine resident also lived.
“They called us and we talked them through preparing to deliver the baby,” Lash said. “They had a whole delivery room set up, but a few hours later the Coast Guard was able to fly the patient in to us and we delivered her son.”
Despite the unusual birth stories, what Lash remembers most was the incredible way her hospital family — residents, attending physicians, nurses, techs — all came together. “We worked as a team and did our best to provide the best care possible to our patients.”
So once she got home, Lash didn’t stay there long.
“I made cupcakes and took them back that night for a surprise birthday party for one of the nurses who was still stuck working,” Lash said.
Marianna Sockrider, M.D. ’83, also was stranded for several days in Houston, but at home rather than at work. That wasn’t too bad personally because she and her husband had power from a generator and solar panels, and their house didn’t flood.
But it was a problem professionally, because Sockrider is chief of pulmonary clinics for Texas Children’s Hospital. Those clinics run five days a week at three hospital campuses and four satellite locations. Their staff is made up of 26 pediatric pulmonologists, nine fellows and a nurse practitioner.
“I spent a lot of time on the phone with updates on which clinics we could open, and how to staff them,” she said.
Sockrider, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, also has a doctorate in public health. She is particularly interested in treating chronic lung diseases and works with many families whose children have cystic fibrosis and asthma. She knew the storm’s aftermath would be a huge challenge, given that mold would be widespread, and the oil and petrochemical industries in Houston had not been able to protect their facilities.
“I realized we needed resources for families,” said Sockrider, who also is associate editor for patient and family education with the American Thoracic Society. She helped solicit and edit a patient information piece titled “Mold-specific concerns associated with water damage for those with allergies, asthma and other lung diseases.”
Another Houston physician, Kavita Shah, M.D. ’06, also noticed a surge in such respiratory cases after the storm. Shah, a hospitalist at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center, was not on duty during the flooding but came back to work soon after.
“I noted a significant increase in cystic fibrosis patients. As the water was rising in their homes, they just left, forgetting to take any of their medications or nebulizers with them,” she said. “One patient was living displaced, med-less, and with progressive respiratory distress.”
The first week after the flooding was particularly challenging, said Shah. Admissions were up as more people could get to hospitals and more people needed to — from new illnesses caused by the flooding and from chronic conditions made worse.
“The staff — physicians, nurses, social workers, ancillary staff — came together to do what we could for the patients, slowly healing them physically and, we hope in some ways, mentally.”
Mental healing also is the work of Joyce Davidson, M.D. ’79, a psychiatrist at the Menninger Clinic and the Baylor Psychiatry Clinic in Houston. Her neighborhood was flooded, but her house, on high ground, was spared.
“I had parked my car on the highway and used a boat to get to it and back each day,” she said.
What she saw when she got to the Baylor clinic, which treats outpatients, was a surge in those traumatized by the events that came after the storm.
“Several were left homeless,” she said. “Many needed to be rescued from their houses by boat or transported to shelters in the back of a dump truck.”
The most vulnerable patients were hit the hardest, said Davidson, some in unexpected ways.
“My specialty is anxiety disorders and OCD. Some hoarding patients had their houses flooded and all of their possessions needed to be disposed of. At first, this may sound fortunate. But these people were devastated more than the average person because of their attachment to all their stuff.”
Fire fears and toxic smog
A few months later across the country, another disaster was bearing down — out-of-control wildfires in California. Sue Hall, M.D. ’83, was spared the immediate terror when wildfires struck her neighborhood in Ventura in the early hours of Dec. 5.
“My neighborhood was evacuated the first night of the fire, and I happened to be in San Francisco, so I didn’t go through that trauma,” said Hall, a neonatologist based at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Oxnard, northwest of Los Angeles. “But when I called my neighbor the morning after, he told me, ‘There’s a 75 percent chance your house is gone.’ ”
When she got home the next day, her house was intact. But just down the street and in many surrounding blocks, 500 homes had been reduced to concrete, stone and ash, and 27,000 people had been evacuated.
The Thomas Fire, so named because it started near Thomas Aquinas College, eventually claimed 440 square miles in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. And it wasn’t fully contained until mid-January. The fire affected Hall’s practice and others across Southern California for weeks.
“The community was amazing figuring out transportation solutions.” – Sue Hall
Hall said the staff at her hospital in Oxnard and its neonatal intensive care unit scrambled continually.
“One by one, people in different neighborhoods had to evacuate as the fire spread from Ventura to Ojai to Santa Barbara,” she said. “Homes of different staff became threatened, and more nurses and doctors had to evacuate. Our practice had to alter its schedule several times.”
After the fires came the mudslides.
“The community was amazing figuring out transportation solutions as Highway 101, the only thoroughfare between Ventura and Santa Barbara, was closed for two weeks,” Hall said.
“One of my physician partners was able to take a private plane, which community members generously donated, to get from Santa Barbara into Oxnard. The alternative was taking a boat or doing a 6-hour drive around, which was out of the question given the urgency at the medical center.”
Hall, who was medical director for neonatal intensive care at Stormont-Vail HealthCare in Topeka from 2007 to 2014, has written and presented on the importance of supporting families of infants in intensive care. So she knew it was crucial to reassure parents that their infants were in controlled environments and receiving whatever care they needed.
“My hospital restricted entry to the front door for several days to help keep smoke out,” Hall said. Fortunately, her little patients didn’t suffer from the staffing challenges inside the hospital or the smoke-filled skies outside.
California’s wildfires were even worse to the north, starting in April and turning deadly in October. The most damaging ones were in Sonoma County, where nearly 7,000 structures across 145 square miles were destroyed. Those fires accounted for 25 of the state’s 47 fire deaths last year.
Far beyond the land they scorched, the fires also made the air bad enough to trigger skin conditions, said Vikas Patel, M.D. ’13.
“My office was in the danger zone of the Sonoma County wildfires,” said Patel, whose dermatology practice is in Walnut Creek, about 25 miles northeast of San Francisco. “These fires led to weeks of unhealthy air quality alerts. We had many patients come in with exacerbations of chronic skin conditions.”
Patel said the conditions fed on themselves for weeks: “The smog, along with the great emotional stress, created a pro-inflammatory environment. We had many late days helping people deal with these issues; both eczema and psoriasis have negative feedback loops where a flare leads to stress, which in turn leads to worsening flares.”
‘These are our neighbors’
Treating physical illnesses wasn’t the only way UMKC alumni helped patients, neighbors and colleagues cope with the crises and heal afterward.
In Southern California, the San Diego area was spared the worst of the fires, but dozens of families still lost their homes. Gilbert Ho, M.D. ’93, knew their terror, because a wildfire had come to the edge of his neighborhood in 2014.
And he knew something of their hardship, having volunteered at a shelter in 2007 when wildfires claimed homes in his area. So he was ready to volunteer again.
“The Lilac Fire was relatively small but affected 150-plus homes,” said Ho, a geriatric neurologist specializing in memory disorders and Alzheimer’s. He runs a large private memory disorders and concussion center in San Diego, involved in treatment and research in dementia.
“These are our neighbors, so I volunteered with a charity, the Tzu Chi Foundation. We distributed thousands of dollars to 41 families, many who had lost everything.”
In Houston, home-stranded Sockrider could spend only so much time helping manage her clinics online and by phone. “I sew and quilt, so I headed to my sewing room and got busy.”
One of her colleagues was flooded out of his house while he was on hospital duty for six straight days, riding out the storm. He got a “Texas Strong” quilt based on the Lone Star State’s flag.
Another colleague whose home was underwater got special pillowcases for her three children.
“I thought, they can’t sleep in their own beds,” Sockrider said. “Maybe having Cinderella or Spider-Man on their pillowcase would help.”
Across town, Shah, the hospitalist, said she and her colleagues continued to work closely together in the hurricane’s aftermath, bolstering their patients and in turn being inspired by them.
“Despite the devastation that hit Houston, Houstonians remained strong and resilient,” Shah said. “Even now, as we still recover, the positive outlook remains.”