HOUSTON ― By Monday evening, Dr. Michael Braun, chief of the pediatric nephrology center at Texas Children’s Hospital, was getting nervous. Hurricane Harvey had flooded the city, leaving many roads impassable and stranding thousands of people in their homes.
It had already been three days since the storm hit. For dozens of his young patients, going multiple days without treatment could be deadly.
Braun’s center is one of the country’s largest clinics for children with kidney failure, providing care for babies through young adults. His patients rely on dialysis, a treatment that filters blood to remove waste and excess fluid, to stay alive. They need the treatment three to four days a week, with a maximum of two days between sessions. And without it, they can suffer severe consequences: hypertension, headaches, chest pain, vomiting and ultimately death.
“This was mission impossible, because it was such a logistical nightmare.”
He called Dr. Rita Swinford, the medical director of the pediatric dialysis unit at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, which is located just four blocks away in an area of southwest Houston known for its medical facilities. Swinford was also panicking. Between their two units, they cared for virtually every child on dialysis in southeast Texas.
Braun’s patients had gotten their last treatment on Saturday, before the worst of the storm hit the city; Swinford’s had been treated on Friday. Time was running out, and they needed a plan. Thirty-three of their patients were critically overdue for dialysis and desperately needed to get to a unit. They’d have to find a way to transport those children and their families, who were spread all over the region, to the centers, in just one day.
“Many, many families were flooded in, either their homes were flooding or flooded, or they were trapped in their neighborhoods and they couldn’t get out,” Braun said. Six of the patients were under age 2. Some of them were on ventilators, and others had medical complications beyond kidney failure.
He called the Coast Guard and gave them a list of patients, addresses and phone numbers. Their mission was to track down all 33 and help them get to the hospital for dialysis ― before it was too late.
Lt. Brad Bryan, the Coast Guard liaison to the Texas State Emergency Operations Center, said they immediately started working with the Texas Department of Emergency Management to create a map of Houston that pinpointed the location of each child, with color coding based on their criticality.
“We very quickly realized that we had 33 children randomly scattered all across Houston in locations that were basically islands surrounded by rapidly rising flood waters,” Bryan said. “This was mission impossible, because it was such a logistical nightmare.”
But they were quickly able to deploy a sweeping rescue effort that included first responders from the Houston police and fire departments, the Coast Guard, a Federal Emergency Management Agency rescue team and the United States Air Force.
One of the patients they were able to save was 16-year-old Inesty Thomas. By Monday evening, she had been waiting for treatment for two days, and she was feeling weak and achy. Thomas, her mother and her siblings had been forced to evacuate from their rapidly flooding home in Crosby over the weekend and were staying at her aunt’s house in Channelview, Texas.
Her mother, Rachel Richard, 34, said she was beginning to feel hopeless. She didn’t know how she would get her daughter to the center for much-needed dialysis.
“I called the Coast Guard, the National Guard, the news,” she told HuffPost from a hotel room on Thursday. She even tried taking her daughter to a dialysis unit for adults, but they were unable to help her.
By Tuesday evening, Thomas hadn’t had dialysis in more than three days ― longer than she’d ever gone without treatment. Then they got a call: A medevac helicopter was on its way. They walked outside to find the rest of the neighborhood was already there, waving their flashlights to get the attention of pilots.
“These people didn’t even know my daughter,” Richard said through tears. “When I saw them all outside waving, I started crying.”
One harrowing helicopter ride and a trip in an ambulance later, Thomas was back at Texas Children’s Hospital getting the life-sustaining dialysis she desperately needed.
By 2 p.m. Wednesday, every single dialysis patient had made it back for treatment at the two centers, Braun said ― either through a daring rescue like that of Thomas, or because the roads eventually opened up and they were able to drive there.
“What these families have been through, it’s mind-boggling,” he said. “These are parents who are extremely resilient, they are used to dealing with difficulties and complex medical care issues. They were all aware that if they couldn’t get to us, potentially their children could die.”
For the Coast Guard servicemen who coordinated the rescues, the news that their mission was successful was worth every sleepless minute. Both Bryan and Coast Guard Ensign James Gardner, who spent hours on the phone with the families throughout the mission, are planning to meet up sometime next week with the children whose lives they helped save.
Gardner, who has been in the Coast Guard for only six months, turned 24 on Tuesday, as the daring rescue mission was still rapidly unfolding.
“Hearing all these kids were going to be with their parents, and they are going to survive, is the best gift I ever could have got,” he said.