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Vol. LVII, No. 19
September 23, 2005

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NIH'ers Answer Katrina's Deluge with Aid

On the front page...

Already vaunted for the power of its head, NIH got a chance to show the strength of its heart in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated parts of four southern states on Aug. 29. Within a day of the storm's passage, NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni convened the first in a series of emergency meetings at which clinical directors, nursing and administrative leaders rapidly hammered out ways NIH could help.

With the calm but urgent tone of the East Baltimore emergency room physician he once was, Zerhouni and other NIH officials outlined a strategy that took shape through the Labor Day weekend and into the following week:


  • NIH, in partnership with the American Association of Medical Colleges, created and activated a telemedicine brain trust for specialty medical consultation over a telephone hotline;

  • An advance team and medical team numbering about 50 people deployed temporarily to a field hospital in Mississippi but most, except commissioned officers, were recalled after 5 days.
A cadre of NIH volunteers boards buses outside the Clinical Research Center on the morning of Sept. 4.

  • The Clinical Center made available 100 beds of "surge capacity" for patients who might need to be transferred from the affected areas, including young cancer patients who would need specialized services.

Commissioned Officers Focus on Readiness, Heed Call of Katrina
By Jan Ehrman

When a number of NIH clinicians, nurses and other commissioned officers headed to the Gulf coast recently to help displaced residents survive the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it was only the most recent deployment in an unusually responsive year. The group briefly staffed a 250-bed hospital in Meridian, Miss.

Cdr. Chris Chamberlain
"It's what many members of the Commissioned Corps have trained for. The mission, as always, focuses on readiness. Maintaining physical fitness, being fully immunized and having the training and readiness needed when deployed into an emergency area-as we are now demonstrating with Katrina-is paramount," said Dr. Richard Wyatt, executive director of NIH's Office of Intramural Research and a rear admiral in the corps.

With a rich past tracing back to the late 1700's, the corps has historically lived up to its mission statement: "protecting, promoting and advancing the health and safety of our nation." Stints in recent times have taken NIH and other PHS officers to such war-torn regions as Afghanistan, Africa, Iraq, and now, the remnants of Katrina.

Overall, there are about 6,000 commissioned officers in the Public Health Service, with the largest number coming from the Indian Health Service, followed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the Bureau of Prisons. Presently, 400 NIH commissioned officers, including 111 from the Clinical Center and 78 from the National Cancer Institute, are part of the structured force. Among the 400 at NIH are 168 medical officers and approximately 100 nurses, but also veterinarians, pharmacists, dietitians, environmental health specialists, therapists, sanitary engineers and computer specialists, according to Kenneth Diepold, NIH liaison to the Surgeon General.

Chamberlain (l) and colleague Dr. Hakson Jin are among 6,000 PHS commissioned officers in the Public Health Service. At right, read about their preparedness.  
NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci spent 27 years in the corps. NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman is also a retired CO. Presently active NIH officials in the corps include CC director Dr. John Gallin, NIDDK deputy director Dr. Griffin Rodgers, NIDCR deputy director Dr. Dushanka Kleinman, NINDS clinician Dr. Mark Hallett and Dr. Harvey Klein, chief of the CC department of transfusion medicine.

During the presidency of John Adams in 1798, corps officers provided care for sick and injured seamen in Boston. Today's mission is no less vital. "We saw it first-hand recently in Asia, when 30 such officers were deployed to provide aid and care to victims of the tsunami disaster," said Wyatt, who is a 34-year corps vet. "And now we have this type of situation again, with Katrina."

Commissioned officers at NIH have a dual role-they perform their main job, conducting research, treating patients and providing other public health activities. They also have to be ready to respond to emergencies.

Cdr. Chris Chamberlain acknowledges her twin functions. A CC pharmacy specialist and 18-year veteran of the corps, she makes countless daily contributions at NIH-serving as a liaison between the pharmacy department and patients undergoing treatment. While providing direct assistance to the Transplant and Autoimmunity Branch, NIDDK, her duties range from assisting with the dosing of anti-rejection medication for immunosuppressed patients to making hospitals rounds with physicians. She also routinely conducts follow-ups with outpatients. The importance of her job notwithstanding, Chamberlain knows that if a natural disaster strikes, she could be whisked away and deployed elsewhere in a moment's notice. "It's both a challenging and a rewarding position," she said.

"I encourage you to be creative," Zerhouni urged at that first meeting, while a large-screen TV tuned to CNN silently broadcast images of the unfolding drama in New Orleans. "We must help people who are hurting now. It is the right thing to do. Let's do it the right way — the NIH way."

More than 1,000 NIH'ers from a staggering breadth of disciplines and backgrounds volunteered in the storm's aftermath. In addition to physicians and nurses they included maintenance workers, officers from the NIH Police, who needed to be deputized as U.S. Marshals in order to serve, procurement officials and public affairs staff. Volunteers, who had to be in good physical condition, were asked to commit to tours of 2 full weeks, and to be immunized against hepatitis and tetanus. Those who could not be deployed had the option at least of sending prayers; special multi-faith services were held in the CRC 7th floor chapel Sept. 6-9.

Whether they stayed and prayed or delivered first aid, NIH'ers were quick and generous in their response. Said one witness to the high-level conferences, "No one at NIH was being obstructionist."

NIH not only marshaled its own resources in response to Katrina, but also reached out to long-time partners at AAMC, Suburban Hospital and the National Naval Medical Center to see how best to accommodate the unfolding situation. Medical partners included volunteers from Duke University and Johns Hopkins University. Because of the sudden need to cooperate with nonfederal allies, legislative experts at NIH quickly worked with Congress to smooth the way to signing on volunteers.

As head of the NIH Command Center, Zerhouni created a number of ad hoc working groups to oversee the various facets of NIH's response. Concluding one of the earliest emergency sessions, he said, "I thank you for all those out there who may not have a home tonight." He added, in one of a series of urgent email letters to all employees in the tragedy's first week, "We will need to set aside business as usual in this unusual time."

NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni (c, in ballcap) and CC director Dr. John Gallin (on the director’s left) meet with NIH group that left Sept. 4. They include (from l) Mark Ritter, Maryland Pao, Melanie Bacon, Jean Murphy, Mike Polis, Amy Garner-O’Brien, Jim Shelhamer, Alice Pao, James Gibbs, Deb Gardner, Bob Danner, Mary Sparks, Sashi Ravindran, Grace Kelly and Susan Hoover.

Key players in the initial response included Dr. Pierre Noel of the CC's department of laboratory medicine, who was put in charge of NIH's field hospital contingent. He was assisted by Elaine Ayres of the Clinical Center, a PHS logistics expert. Capt. Diane Walsh of the CC nursing department served as NIH liaison with the HHS Secretary's Operations Center.

Ten NIH Police officers went to the Gulf, including (kneeling, from l) Cpl. Alexander Negretti, Sgt. Fredric Boyle, Cpl. Wallace Carter and Cpl. Gary Pickering. Standing are (from l) Cpl. Dexter Moore, Cpl. Thomas Cioffi Sr., MPO James Pineiro, MPO Craig Rowland, MPO Herman Bartz III and Lt. James Skyrm.
NIH’ers handle phones in Bldg. 10 medical board room. They are (from l) Dinora Dominguez, Laura Lee, Dora Bell, Nancy Jenkins, Dr. Fred Gill and Kathy Bronson.

Among the first NIH'ers on the ground in Katrina's wake were ORF engineer John Walker, who was deployed Sept. 3, and NIDDK nephrologist Dr. Jeffery Kopp, who left for Baton Rouge with a cadre of 38 PHS officers on Sunday, Aug. 28. Other early responders included disbursing officer William Kelley of the Office of Logistics and Acquisition Operations, Maj. Ophus Robinson of the NIH Police and Lt. Chris Mattingly, an EMT with the Division of Fire and Rescue Services.

Parting was tough for many who responded..
As the Katrina response unfolded, the NIH home page on the web served as a reliable source of updates, including where to send cash. The annual Combined Federal Campaign debuted early, on Sept. 2, in order to accommodate donations, and the NIH R&W Association instituted a Hurricane Relief fund. NIH and its partners also expanded the medical consultation hotline to include information for patients in the region devastated by Katrina. Consultations were available in environmental/ toxic concerns, infectious diseases, tropical/ geographical medicine, ophthalmology, HIV/AIDS, psychiatry, cardiac/pulmonary diseases and cancer, among other topics.

Zerhouni hinted that the many offers by NIH'ers to open their homes to people dislocated by Katrina might eventually be taken up. "This will be a long and difficult period for those who have suffered so much," he said in an all-hands email Sept. 1. "We will have many opportunities to contribute to the rebuilding process over the months ahead. I am grateful for your commitment."

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