Life of Helping Others

Life of Helping Others

Local nurse helps victims of Hurricane Katrina in Texas field hospital.

When the time came for Kaiser Permanente nurse Lucy Buchness to pack her bags and leave, she never questioned her decision.

Or her family.

"My boss called me and asked me if I wanted to help," said Buchness about a 2005 trip to Houston to assist Hurricane Katrina and Rita survivors.

"I was just so despondent about what was going on there," she said. "When they called and asked if I wanted to help, I said yes before even discussing the decision with my family."

Buchness, 47, is a clinical nurse in the endocrinology department of Kaiser Permanente's Falls Church medical center where she works with diabetes patients.

"I was so upset over the lack of response of peoples' needs down there," said the Fairfax County resident about the situation along the Gulf Coast.

When Buchness learned Kaiser Permanente volunteered its medical personnel to help staff the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services medical shelters in the affected regions, Buchness told her supervisor she wanted to help.

"I got a call over the weekend where they wanted me to submit some names of people who were interested in helping," said Betty Ann Duffy, clinical coordinator for adult primary care at the Kaiser Permanente Falls Church medical center.

As Buchness' supervisor, Duffy knew who she wanted on that list.

"I called her and she didn't even hesitate," said Duffy. "She immediately said she wanted to go."

LEADING UP TO her departure Buchness was so consumed with preparing for her trip, that she did not think about the actual experience until she arrived in Houston.

Stationed at a medical clinic in a disaster recovery center with medical staff from across the country, Buchness had no indication of what type of medical care she would be providing.

"We dealt with primary care matters," she said. "We triaged patients with chronic illnesses like diabetes and high blood-pressure. But, a lot of it was listening to their stories about what they've been through."

In response to the Gulf Coast crisis, Kaiser Permanente gave close to $3 million dollars to relief efforts, according the to the national communications office.

Of that, $2 million was pledged to assist the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launch a foundation to assist Hurricane Katrina victims. The other $1 million was dedicated to help with the long-term recovery efforts, according to the national office.

Wanting to do more than meet monetary needs, many medical professionals like Buchness contributed a few weeks of their time as volunteers on-site.

During her first week at the shelter, Buchness estimates roughly 2,000 patients were let into the disaster recovery center at one time. Buchness also worked with student translators at a clinic for the area's large Vietnamese population, where approximately 12,000 patients were treated in four weeks.

"It was overwhelming to see how many people have zero ability to get health care and immunizations and things like that," said Duffy.

While medical personnel tried to treat illnesses and fill prescriptions, they also watched people's children and offered a support system to those who had lost everything, Buchness said.

"Texas did a really good job of taking care of these people," she said. "Everybody was so appreciative, it makes you realize that we really have nothing to complain about."

WHILE SHE LEFT Houston at the beginning of October, the experience left its mark on Buchness.

With no phone to answer or paperwork to complete at the disaster recovery center, all of Buchness' time was spent with patients.

"The contact with the patients and being able to feel like I can make a difference with these chronic patients," she said, "that is what I enjoyed the most about the experience."

Reflecting on her short time in Houston, Buchness now has a stronger interest in public health and local health care issues, she said.

"The experience made me much more eager to volunteer here at home," she said. "It just gave me the feeling, why does it take a disaster for us to get together to do something?"

After celebrating her return, many of her Kaiser Permanente colleagues wanted to hear about the people she met and the patients she helped.

"Hearing the human spirit stories of her experience was striking," said Duffy. "She treated so many victims and they all had a story about so much devastation, and yet they were still appreciative and grateful for the treatment that they were being given."

And while she believes she grew professionally and personally from the experience, a part of her feels guilty that it was a result of the destruction of so many lives.

"A lady came back to the pharmacy to get a prescription re-written and she looked at us and said 'I don't remember being that happy. I lost my business and my home,'" recalled Buchness. "I just hugged her and said we'll pray for you. It felt kind of lame because the whole week was that sort of a contradiction — I was growing, but others were suffering."