Rio Grande Regional Hospital’s Sandra Martinez Travels Texas as Part of Emergency Task Force



For most members of the HCA Gulf Coast Division family, an approaching hurricane means battening down the hatches, long shifts at the hospitals, and spending time with the family.

For Rio Grande Regional Hospital ICU and Hemodialysis Director Sandra Martinez, it means she needs to prepare to leave her home and family behind while she travels to the areas hardest hit by the storm.

Martinez is a volunteer with the Emergency Medical Task Force, a state division of disaster management. The force provides well-coordinated, rapid professional medical assistance to emergency operation systems during large scale disasters.

On Aug. 24, 2017, with Hurricane Harvey set to slam into the Texas Gulf Coast, Martinez, who had volunteered just four months before and whose preparation was strictly in the classroom, was deployed to San Antonio for checking in, then sent to Corpus Christi.

She reported to the command center at the task force’s district office, where she and the rest of the team were told what hospitals and nursing homes had to be evacuated. They were then deployed to Corpus Christi Medical Center - Bay Area to evacuate their neonatal and women’s services patients to San Antonio. The move took 24 hours, and at 10 a.m. the day before Harvey hit, Martinez found herself sleeping on a cot in the AT&T Center in San Antonio.

She didn’t rest for long, however. "The next morning, we were sent back to Corpus Christi, then on to Rockport, which was devastated, almost flattened by the storm," Martinez remembered. "We requested a mobile medical unit and stayed there for five days. We served hundreds of patients, people who had lost everything. One of the EMS crews had been running for over 72 hours without sleep, so several of us took over EMS. It was just a horrible situation."

From there, Martinez and her team returned to San Antonio, and were then sent up the coast to Orange, where they set up a Level One emergency unit. "We had a patient walk in and literally code on us right there," she said. "We were able to get him to a hospital in Beaumont, but he coded multiple times on the trip there and then had five bypasses. He survived – something I know wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the task force."

The hardships continued in Orange, an area particularly hard hit by Harvey. "Orange was still flooded, including Interstate 10, which runs right through the town," she said. "Crews had to blow up part of the highway to let water pass through, and I was amazed when the Army Corps of Engineers had it rebuilt in a matter of days!"

Through it all, Martinez was amazed at the kindness and generosity shown by local residents. “It was heartbreaking to see people walking around with hardly anything left, and their main concern was that we had everything we needed. We had been provided with Meals Ready to Eat by the task force, but we never even opened them. People who had hardly anything shared with us. They fed us. They did our laundry. Honestly, it made me cry. The one thing I wish they had told us ahead of time, however, was that there was a local alligator farm, and a bunch of the reptiles had escaped!”

Martinez was wrapping up her work in Orange when she received a phone call from her sister back in McAllen, who had been caring for Martinez’s son, Lee, 13, for three weeks. "It was awful," Martinez recalled. "Lee had appendicitis and had to have emergency surgery, and I was hundreds of miles away." Martinez raced back home and was there in time to see Lee wake up after a successful surgery. "My work family made sure everything went perfectly, and Lee told me that he had told the surgeon, 'My mom says you are the best, so I am expecting the best!'"

Ever since she was a little girl, Martinez wanted to help people by providing health care to the less fortunate. Being able to participate in the task force has helped her fulfill that lifelong dream, she said. "I believe in what my CEO Cris Rivera says – it’s better to be proactive than reactive," she said. "It was an experience I wish all my co-workers could experience, because it changes you. While I hope we never have to mobilize again, I have no plans to stop volunteering with the Emergency Medical Task Force."