By the time you read this, Gulf Coast storm surges may be fading news. I sincerely hope so. But as I sit at my computer writing this column, recovery efforts throughout Texas continue to assist the survivors of 20-foot waves and demolishing winds.
My sister is an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). She is also a uniformed member of the Public Health Service. She was called to service in New Orleans when Katrina hit and spent almost a month opening a hospital and directing recovery efforts. For the past several weeks, she has been on site in and near Galveston, Texas, tending to displaced nursing-home victims of Hurricane Ike.
I've regularly received brief messages from her on a hand-held Blackberry. Today's weary message ended with, "Lessons reinforced by working with this patient population — don't smoke, get fat or lose connection with your family!"
I was struck by the practical relevance of her observations. Let's take them one at a time.
"Don't smoke." If you're a smoker, probably nothing either my feisty sister or I say might say will prompt you to stop. You would probably continue to smoke even if I gave you a vivid picture of an elderly, lifetime smoker in a flimsy shelter desperately choking and gasping for breath in the middle of a raging storm and its aftermath.
"Don't get fat." If you're trapped in horrific emergency circumstances and you're obese, it's almost impossible to transport you to safety. It's one thing to deal with the many difficulties presented by cardiac problems or diabetes related to overweight; it's quite another to be unable to get to safe haven because your lifetime of overeating doesn't allow a helicopter to get off the ground.
"Don't lose connection with your family." It's one thing to be old and alone in the middle of a storm without water, power or working toilets. And it is yet another when an emergency worker asks, "Who can we contact?" and you have no names to give them.
These are not real situations. My sister's far too busy to give me much detail. However, I suspect the actual stories are more sobering than my illustrations. Imagine a converted sports arena containing 300 cots filled with elderly, chronically ill people and their exhausted, unrelieved caretaking staff. Think about that as you sip your morning coffee and eat your muffin. Think about that as you put your feet up at the end of what you always thought was a long day.
So, what's my message? "Get in touch with your own health," you say? That's always my message. Important of course, but there are other things going on.
Today's message is "a storm is coming." There's a hurricane of circumstances, significant beyond anything we have seen in generations. And it is descending upon us. The list of challenges is long "¦ environmental disasters ... disintegrating financial markets ... the desperate need for more political truth-telling.
It's quite a storm. Stand ready. We're going to need each other.
Smoke if you must, eat what you will ... but definitely do not lose connection with your family.
Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human services at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.