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Medical Student Weathers Storm during Clinical Rotation

students tending to a 'patient' at a field exercise
By Sarah Marshall

Ensign Cat Woodard is no stranger to hunkering down for a hurricane. Prior to coming to USU, the third-year medical student was living in North Carolina in 2011 during Hurricane Irene, which spawned several tornadoes and claimed dozens of lives. She also lived through Hurricane Arthur in 2014, which battered the Carolinas with 100-mph winds and flooded the Outer Banks. So, as she headed south last September toward the destructive path of Hurricane Florence – en route to a clinical rotation at Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina -- she readied herself to support the community she considered “family.”

She had lived at Camp Lejeune while her husband, a Marine, was stationed there between 2013 and 2016.  During that time, before applying to USU, Woodard had an opportunity to pursue an interest in medicine by shadowing in the Naval Medical Center’s Emergency department. She got to know many providers there, plus her children were born there, so returning to the medical center for her five-week clinical rotation was like going “home,” she said.

Woodard said she has always had an appreciation for the importance of community, especially during and after such a catastrophic weather event. And as she headed to Camp Lejeune, knowing the type of damage Florence could cause, she felt prepared to support other healthcare providers in the impending storm thanks to her education and training at USU, especially fresh off of a five-week Surgery rotation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

heat image of a hurricane

“I knew I had this opportunity to really be helpful,” she said.  It was all she could really think about as she drove down the East Coast, while the news on the radio warned residents to evacuate the area. “I really wanted to make a difference.”

She arrived at Camp Lejeune’s medical center on Sept. 13, and by the next day, the town had been completely evacuated. The hospital had reduced its operations for the safety of its staff and patients, and remained on lockdown for six days as the storm made landfall about 40 miles south. 

“I was just thinking, ‘how can I help my community?’” she added.

For those first few days at the medical center, Woodard was able to support the Emergency department, organizing supplies and handing out cots and blankets. She also had the unique opportunity to observe and be involved in the meticulous communication and “behind-the-scenes” effort during the storm, helping to make sure objects were moved away from windows and doors were securely locked, while the hurricane spawned a tornado warning. The staff remained in constant communication with other local civilian hospitals to coordinate available equipment and resources, and prepare for emergency patient transport if needed.

As they worked around the clock to meet the needs of their patients, the staff also looked out for each other to make sure everyone took sufficient breaks. The medical center’s Commanding Officer and Executive Officer were also on hand, attending to the needs of the patients and relieving staff.

students tending to a 'patient' at a field exercise

“It was amazing to see the medical center’s staff work so efficiently through such a tough situation. They really banded together as a team, and looked out for one another,” she said.

Fortunately, the medical center was not in an area that flooded and they did not lose power. But the storm did turn out to be the wettest tropical cyclone on record to date in the Carolinas, bringing with it a record-breaking storm surge of 9 to 13 feet and rainfall of 20 to 30 inches, according to the National Weather Service. It downed thousands of trees, causing widespread power outages to nearly all of eastern North Carolina.

Once the storm died down and it was safe for residents to return to their homes, the Emergency department at Camp Lejeune began to see patients streaming in, mostly with injuries from falls, and from glass and debris left behind as residents cleaned up their flooded yards. Woodard was able to help clean and suture several knee and head wounds, she said. And during any brief “down time,” she and other staff took the opportunity to brush up on training, such as practicing Advanced Life Support scenarios. Woodard was even able to share some suture techniques with a few corpsmen, which she had learned during her surgical rotation at Walter Reed Bethesda.

a house under construction

Once the medical center resumed normal operations, Woodard spent the remainder of her clinical rotation in the medical center’s Family Medicine department. There, she had the opportunity to help patients of all ages, coming in for various health concerns. She also saw some of the same patients she had just seen in the Emergency department a few days prior, who were coming in for follow-up appointments. Woodard had to pay close attention to the fact that many of these patients were still dealing with the aftermath of Florence -- if patients needed to pick up a prescription, they had to be sure the roads by their house weren’t flooded so they could pick it up. Or if oxygen needed to be delivered to their house, they had to be sure that it could be delivered, because of the flooding.

“It certainly changed the dynamic of the rotation,” she said.

Once she returned to USU, she began to reflect on the entire experience. She thoroughly enjoyed being able to help in that situation, and seeing the entire community come together -- hospital staff brought in home-cooked meals to share, local business and restaurants donated food -- everyone looked out for each other.  Her experiences in the Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune Emergency department also made an impact -- it’s helped her decide on a career in Emergency Medicine. 

“It’s definitely an experience I will remember forever,” she said.