A mobile dental unit donated by Ronald McDonald House was converted to a basic-care unit for wound care and vaccinations. (UK photo by Hilary Brown)
By Hillary Smith
University of Kentucky
HAZARD, Ky. — More than a week into recovery and relief efforts following the devastating floods in Eastern Kentucky, Dr. Key Douthitt sums up the experience with two words: “I’m exhausted.”
But what he and his community are going through is not so simple. Douthitt is the medical director for UK HealthCare’s North Fork Valley Clinic in hard-hit Perry County.
He considers himself one of the lucky ones.
“My wife told me this morning, think how exhausted you would be if you didn’t have a home, you didn’t have electricity, you didn’t have a car,” he said. “So at the end of the day, whatever I’m going through is small in comparison to what a lot of our neighbors are.”
Two weeks ago, parts of several communities were virtually wiped away by the floodwaters, with some homes being swept off their foundations and carried away. In Eastern Kentucky, it’s common for generations of families to put their homes on the same strip of land. For those who had the misfortune of being along the path of the historic flooding, pieces of their families’ homes and many of their belongings are now scattered along creek banks and even up in trees, showing just how high the water rose. Anything left behind, including the insides of homes, are now caked in layers of mud.
Along with family keepsakes, electronics, clothes and food, many residents are also left without crucial items like lifesaving medications, identification and insurance cards, glasses, dentures, walkers, canes and more.
Several homes that were spared have been without electricity for days, which is problematic, especially for those who rely on things like oxygen and CPAP machines. Getting generators to those homes is a top priority. Health care workers are working tirelessly to try to meet the growing list of needs in their communities and know that these needs are dire — and will only continue to grow.
UK HealthCare operates two clinics in the flooded areas. The North Fork Valley Clinic in Hazard is still operational; however, the June Buchanan Clinic in Hindman experienced significant flooding.
“When we see someone who is down, we are going to pick them up and try and pull them back up as best we can,” said Douthitt. “So we’re used to hard times here but we’re also used to coming together as a community.”
With support from UK’s Center of Excellence in Rural Health in Hazard and volunteers, the staff from the two clinics have spent the past several days out in the community offering aid. They have been a shining example of what a community health care worker is.
“In a lot of these communities, we find people that either can’t or don’t want to leave what is left of their homes. They are worried about looting, and it is where they are comfortable,” said Douthitt. “They won’t come to us; we know we are going to have to go to them. And after all they have been through, that’s the least we can do.”
While crews have worked tirelessly to clear main roads throughout the mountains, the reality is that dozens of bridges, culverts and small roads remain impassable — or have even been wiped from existence.
“Unless you are from this area, you don’t really know what rural means … especially flooded rural,” said Pam Cornett, who is working out of one of UK HealthCare’s mobile clinics. Cornett, a Letcher County native, typically works as a dental hygienist in the dental mobile units but is using her skills and expertise to help with wound care and vaccinations for flood survivors.
Rescue teams have needed to get creative in finding ways to provide help for some of these hard-to-reach areas. CERH Director Fran Feltner noted that one of their mobile teams were unable to reach someone in need even on an ATV — so they instead got to the person and delivered necessary supplies by horseback.
“Our rural Kentucky mountains are beautiful places to live, a place we call home, a place where family, friends and neighbors lend a helping hand or shoulder to lean on in times of disaster,” said Feltner. She says as their teams are out working to access those impacted by the floods, they are often joined by neighbors who also want to help by providing extra hands, an ATV or their own horse.
“That is what we do here. You go out into these communities, and you just see the absolute devastation,” said Douthitt. “We were out the other day and came across a man who was all cut up. It was because he was out looking for his wife’s body. When you see that stuff, you just know we need to do everything we can for these people.”
UK’s two dental units operated out of its Hazard clinic have been converted for basic wound care and tetanus vaccinations. As one lady rolls up her sleeve to receive her shot, she quietly tells the team member, “We lost everything.”
Her husband is also there, being inspected for a puncture wound on his foot. The family, including an 84-year-old, had waded through water up to their necks to get to safety.
“Everyone is kind of bewildered and overwhelmed,” Cornett said. “One gentleman told me that he doesn’t know where to even start.”
As they travel, the mobile clinics are also handing out backpacks with a day or two supply of hygiene items and food that have been collected and organized by the Center for Excellence in Rural Health.
“I’m trying to stay focused on the medical needs knowing we have people working hard to get the other supplies out,” said Douthitt. “Together, we are going to make sure the whole person is taken care of.”
The team members in the mobile care units are also helping connect those in need with the appropriate contacts and services.
“I met a man yesterday who lost his prosthetic leg in the flood, so we are working to get him set up and get that replaced,” said Cornett. “Basically, we’re trying to get anything they need in order to get back to some sort or normalcy.”
While these health care heroes work tirelessly to help their community, they are also living the experience as an Eastern Kentuckian.
“We have staff trying to come and concentrate on providing medical care to people when the whole time they’re thinking, ‘I need to be doing X, Y or Z for my family. My family needs me right now,’” said Douthitt. “And it’s a lot. That’s a lot to put on people.”
Next, the hope is to have the June Buchanan Clinic cleaned up and operational soon.
“We are just going to get through this one day at a time, one moment at a time,” said Douthitt. “Eventually we will be able to look back and say, ‘Look how we picked ourselves back up.’”
The region is far more complex than many understand. From its hills to its valleys, the area is rich in tradition and pride. Those are all things that the floodwaters could not wash away.
“I’m very proud to be from this area,” said Cornett. “We have some really good people, really strong people. We will bounce back. It might take years, but we will bounce back.”
In the aftermath of the floods, there are many moving parts and a constantly changing list of needs, some which could mean the difference between life and death. It can be overwhelming at times, which is why the health care workers try to keep the focus on what really matters — the strength in their community and unwavering support from strangers — all while taking it one step at a time.
“When you say to someone, ‘Hey, I know you aren’t from here, but can you get on an ATV and run this up to the next holler over and they say, Yes!’ It just warms your heart,” said Douthitt. “To see people come together for a common goal, it just shows at the end of the day we are all on this same earth, and we’re just going to pitch together to do the best we can.”