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Coast Guard medical teams help first responders in hurricane-ravaged areas

A Coast Guard medical team oversees a temporary tent city set up in Key West, Florida, to shelter service members assisting with hurricane recovery efforts. Pictured left to right: Cmdr. Rob Kuhl, Capt. Ezequias Sanchez-Olmo, HS3 Christopher Roche, HS2 Lauren Coghill, HS2 Ivan Castro, and Cmdr. Justin Eubanks. (U.S. Coast Guard) A Coast Guard medical team oversees a temporary tent city set up in Key West, Florida, to shelter service members assisting with hurricane recovery efforts. Pictured left to right: Cmdr. Rob Kuhl, Capt. Ezequias Sanchez-Olmo, HS3 Christopher Roche, HS2 Lauren Coghill, HS2 Ivan Castro, and Cmdr. Justin Eubanks. (U.S. Coast Guard)

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Cmdr. Donald Kuhl loaded up a Coast Guard truck with a trailer containing his pop-up medical clinic and bed for what would be the next few weeks in Florida. Lt. Cmdr. Jacklyn Finocchio boarded a military flight to Puerto Rico and, upon arrival, had to figure out where to report despite a lack of cellphone service. Each served on separate Coast Guard teams that met and banded together as mobile medical units to assist in areas where disaster had just struck.

In September, at the height of this year’s busy hurricane season, the medical teams offered patient care for first responders and active duty service members taking part in rescue and relief efforts in Florida and Puerto Rico. They also assisted Coast Guard families in the hard-hit areas.

“I was glad we had the preparations and tools in place to immediately go offer help,” said Commander Kuhl, an aeromedical physician assistant. Besides intense heat and a lack of electricity, the challenges they faced included flooded homes and roads, flipped vehicles, and extensive debris.

Equipped with a generator, air conditioner, medical supplies, and tents, the units provided the same care typically available in an outpatient clinic. “It’s all self-contained,” said Kuhl. “Over two days in Orlando, our team evaluated more than 50 patients across the services.”

Kuhl, also a Coast Guard medical contingency planner, made his way to Florida in September with one of the mobile medical units right after Hurricane Irma rolled through. The team first set up camp in Orlando, where many evacuees from areas of coastal Florida, Puerto Rico, and St. Croix were being sheltered. The team quickly moved on to the Florida Keys where damage was extensive.

“It was 95 degrees and 95 percent humidity, and without power, there’s no air conditioning or chance to get a break from the heat,” said Kuhl, adding that heat-related injuries were common.

“We were able to help a pregnant spouse scheduled for a cesarean section that week,” said Kuhl. “The hospital in Key West was closed, so we evaluated her stability and connected her with the right resources to deliver her baby at the local Orlando hospital.”

While one team helped in Florida after Hurricane Irma and restocked its medical supplies, another team on standby prepared for deployment as Hurricane Maria approached Puerto Rico.

“We were just waiting for our chance to help out those we knew needed it,” said Lt. Cmdr. Finocchio, a Public Health Service pharmacy officer and mobile medical unit leader.

Finocchio said the Coast Guard was the first uniformed service to arrive in the western part of Puerto Rico after Maria swept through the island. Responsible for the health care of about 370 Coast Guard members stationed and temporarily assigned to Coast Guard Air Station Borinquen in Aguadilla, Finocchio’s team was also the main source of medical care for active duty service members from the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Army who arrived about a week later.

The Coast Guard team took first steps into many remote communities by ground and air, helping with searches, rescues, and wellness checks. “There are a few situations that stick in my mind,” said Finocchio. “Whatever mission needed to be done, we all worked together. Everyone was motivated to help the Puerto Rican community.”

In addition to treating relief worker issues like upper respiratory symptoms, fatigue, and accidental injuries, the medical teams informed various agencies of hospital capabilities and joined patrols to identify needs in the community.

Finocchio’s team checked in on a family member of an active duty Coast Guard member and found the individual safe with a supply of critical medications. The team brought food and water over a river to locals because the hurricane had washed out the bridge. They also participated in an ongoing community project closer to Aguadilla when they were off-duty, helping a family rebuild their home.

During search and rescue operations, they retrieved critical medical patients from their homes, including a 3-year-old boy whose family was out of fuel for their generator, and down to only a few hours of battery backup.

“The young boy relies on a ventilator to breathe due to a chronic medical condition,” said Finocchio. “The only way to keep the boy alive was to fly him and his family off the island to a reliable power source. I helped place him on a private jet, arranged within hours through a nonprofit organization. Helping this young boy and his family was one of the most rewarding experiences for me.”

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